November 13, 2007

LOCAL: Birds wash up on south county shores after ‘mystery spill’

Authorities say tanker spill, moth spraying unlikely cause of bird sickness


SANTA CRUZ — At least 45 sick seabirds washed up on two south Santa Cruz County beaches this weekend along with numerous dead birds in what authorities are calling the worst local “mystery spill” in a decade.

Dave Jessup, senior wildlife veterinarian with the Department of Fish and Game at Long Marine Laboratory, said he doubts the birds are victims of last week’s cargo ship spill of 58,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay, though up to five birds believed sickened from that accident have been found in this area. Jessup said he thinks the two spills are a strange coincidence.

See video of treatment of a sick surf scote

Jessup believes the mystery spill happened Thursday within a mile of shore because the first sick birds, mostly kinds that stay within 1,000 yards of land, were found Friday. The cause is a mystery, he said, because whatever leaked into the water was gone by the time authorities realized Saturday that there had even been a spill.

He also said it is highly unlikely the birds were sickened by last week’s aerial spraying of a pesticide to control the light brown apple moth. Jessup said his office has not received any reports of other birds or ducks sickened by the pesticide. The state began the controversial spraying in Santa Cruz County on Thursday night.

Steve Lyle, a spokesman with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said there have been no reports of animal illness due to the spraying of a pheromone used to upset the moth’s mating cycle. He said state planes did not spray the pesticide in Santa Cruz County south of Aptos, some five miles north of the two Watsonville-area beaches where the sick birds were found. He said there also have been no reports of sick birds in Monterey County, where the state sprayed in September and October.

Jessup said surf scoters and other birds recovered on Sunset and Manresa state beaches since Friday are not covered in the black bunker oil that leaked into the San Francisco Bay when the Cosco Busan cargo ship crashed into a supporting tower of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on Wednesday. Rather, he said, rescuers using dark towels have peeled off a white, waxy film from the local birds that could be a cooking oil. Other sick birds have been found at New Brighton State Beach and at Moran Lake Beach.

Jessup said the incident is the most significant mystery spill in this area since the fall of 1997, when an unknown substance — later determined to be a mixture of vegetable and fish oil — was found off North Monterey County.

Jessup said he did not know how many dead birds had been recovered this weekend, but said it was less than the number recovered alive.

Authorities this weekend sent nearly four-dozen live birds to the International Bird Rescue Research Center in Solano County, where all the oiled fowl from the San Francisco spill are being treated, Jessup said. A few of the dead birds were sent to the Fish and Game testing center near Sacramento, where officials should be able to identify the substance that stripped their waterproofing.

Whatever it is, it’s essentially causing them to drown, rescuers said.

“They are cold and wet,” said Molly Richardson, who runs Native Animal Rescue out of the laundry room and garage of her 17th Avenue home.

With help from her twin granddaughters and other volunteers, Richardson placed birds recovered by residents into crates like those used to carry cats. The volunteers dried and warmed the birds using hair dryers before hydrating them and feeding them the dietary supplement drink Ensure through a tube inserted in their stomachs.

“If they take fish, then they’re OK,” said Richardson, a former Pacific Grove school teacher who took over the rescue operation when it separated from the Santa Cruz SPCA about 16 years ago.

Richardson and another volunteer, Nathan Lawrence, said they aren’t so sure the birds are victims of a mysterious incident. They wondered whether the birds were somehow victims of the moth spraying or a byproduct of the San Francisco spill.

“It doesn’t look like oil to me,” she said. “The birds look very healthy, except they are not waterproof.”

Lawrence speculated the birds could have been contaminated with paraffin that separated from the Cosco Busan oil, but Jessup said that was unlikely because paraffin doesn’t separate from oil naturally.

Regional authorities have taken in the five oiled birds that were clearly victims of the tanker spill, Jessup said. They are also being treated in Solano County.

Contact J.M. Brown at or 429-2410.