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Published: August 13, 2005

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Many people are not fazed when finding a dead bird while walking the beach.
The Pilot/Ben McMorries

Pilot story by

Joe Friedrichs

Unfazed by a continual rhythmic beating from the Pacific Ocean, the skeleton of a once sailing seabird rests in the sand near Chetco Point in Brookings.

The bird, a common murre, appears to have been dead for several days; its body resembles a dirty wet sock more so than an organism. It's rotting, stinking and surrounded by flies.

The murre shares the beach with other birds of its kind, some alive and others dead.

Increased numbers of dead birds and fewer fish along the Oregon Coast have left a number of biologists in the state confused and searching for answers.

"When birds show up dead on the beach in large numbers we know something bad is happening," said Roy Lowe, project leader for the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Complex in Newport. "It's been a total shock to us. I don't think anybody was prepared."

Biologists at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service marine refuges along the coast began noticing changes early this summer, Lowe said.

Record numbers of dead seabirds and the apparent absence of salmon ignited the cause for concern in the biologists.

"Common murres are like a canary in a coal mine," Lowe said. "They're an indicator of the health of the ocean."

The fuel that started this fire of death and disappearance: wind.

Early summer winds are essential to draw cold water containing nutrients from the ocean depths, Lowe said. This year the winds did not arrive until months after they should have, which caused warm water to stagnate near the surface.

This caused plankton that are food for a variety of aquatic life not to reproduce and left almost nothing for the fish and birds to eat, Lowe said.

"It's a natural process so there's really nothing that can be done," he said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Newport reported that ocean waters near the shore have been 5 to 7 degrees warmer than normal this summer, Lowe said.

Ocean fish are feeling the effects, too, he added.

NOAA found a 25 percent drop in juvenile salmon off the Oregon coasts this year. Coho fisherman only yielded 9 percent of their expected quota, Lowe said.

Bob Loeffel, a retired Fish Wildlife and Parks employee, has worked on the Pacific Coast since 1959. He said this summer has produced the most dead murres he has ever seen.

And Loeffel has seen a lot of them.

Five times a month the retiree walks a 4.6-mile stretch of beach just south of Newport. His walks are both pleasure and pain. Pleasure in that he gets exercise by walking the beautiful coast. Pain in that he views hoards of dead birds.

Loeffel has been reporting the number of dead birds he sees on his weekly walks since 1978, he said.

When Loeffel sees a dead bird he tallies a number in his book and then moves the bird to the high ground and out of sight.

This July produced the greatest amount he has ever recorded, with 181 dead adult murres, the most abundant seabird found in Oregon.

In June, he found only six dead birds, he said.

Over a four-week timespan this summer, Loeffel's counts were 29 the first week, then 67, 67 and 28 dead birds.

His first count in August yielded 28 birds.

"I would expect the count to decrease as we go on through this month," he said.

In July, Lowe and several other biologists in Oregon took one of the murres that turned up dead and sent it to a bird research facility in Madison, Wis.

The lab reported back that there was no food in the bird's stomach and that its body had no fat.

"What happens is, a bird leaves a nest searching for food over the water and just can't locate any," Loeffel said. "They run out of energy out there and fall to their death."

Lowe fears that next year the number of murres will be dramatically lower than they have been in the past, even if there is food aplenty.

"We are losing adult birds, and our reproduction is very low. In fact, we may have no young birds this fall," he said.

Other birds are showing up dead along the coast in increased numbers as well, including Brandt's cormorants, a duck like bird, Lowe said.

The scene has been improving over the past few weeks with the arrival of the north blowing winds, but Lowe fears it may be too late for this year's offspring.

"My great hope is that this will turn around quickly," Lowe said. "Perhaps we're over the hump, but we really don't know yet."

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