Dead seabirds are showing up by the hundreds on the ice and on shore near the town of Hampden in western Newfoundland, leaving residents and biologists stumped and searching for a reason why.
Longtime resident and murre hunter Gary Gale told CBC News on Friday he has never seen an event of this magnitude before. He said birds began to fly into the bay about a week ago — and within a few days they began to die.
“[It’s] unbelievable,” Gale said. “Several years ago it was common to see seabirds that would pick up oil if you had an oil spill and die from picking up the oil, but I did make a check on some of the birds close to shore and I didn’t see any oil in the feathers.”
Gale said residents believe the birds — which so far seem to be entirely murres — are dying of starvation.
Sabina Wilhelm, a wildlife biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, said the event is under investigation but isn’t happening only near Hampden. Reports have also come in from southern Labrador about a similar incident, she said.
Federal wildlife enforcement officers were in Hampden on Thursday and collected several birds to send to St. John’s, where they will be examined for a cause of death, said Wilhelm, while provincial conservation officers are doing the same in Labrador. Wildlife technicians were also heading to Newfoundland’s northeast coast on Friday to collect dead birds from that area, she said.
Wilhelm said it’s being treated as one large event.
“It seems to be quite widespread,” she said, but they “simply don’t know” what happened.
“That’s why we’re really working on getting the birds here as quickly as possible to determine a cause of death.”
Wilhelm said it’s not unusual to see some seabirds dead this time of year as they fly into bays and get caught by sea ice. But, she said, the volume of dead birds being found this week is uncommon and sea ice doesn’t appear to be a factor.
“There certainly is ice out there but not enough ice that would suggest that they were being trapped in a bay,” Wilhelm said.
“Looking at the ice chart, it looks like the waters are relatively quite open. It’s unusual to see so many birds being reported over such a large area with no clear, obvious reason. This is why we’re making this a priority to find out what’s happening.”
Seabird expert Bill Montevecchi said Friday he’s heard of dead birds being found in Twillingate, on Newfoundland’s northeast coast, and picked one up himself in Cape Freels to have it examined in St. John’s.
Whatever’s happening, he said, is an anomaly.
“Whenever that happens, and for whatever reason that happens, we really want to probe it and try to get to the bottom of it.”
Wilhelm said a preliminary cause of death for the birds found in Hampden could be determined by late next week.