‘A SADNESS OF SHEARWATERS’ ON ABACO: DIE-OFF 2020


Audobon's_Shearwater - Dominic Sherony wiki

‘A SADNESS OF SHEARWATERS’ ON ABACO

If you are walking your favourite beach on Abaco right now, it’s quite possible you may see – or may already have seen – a very poorly seabird. Or one that is dead, I’m afraid. Or you may have read about this online. These poor birds may be (a) Audubon’s Shearwaters (also known as Dusky Petrels), which are the only permanent resident shearwater species on Abaco; (b) Cory’s, Great or Sooty, which are transients; (c) Manx, which is a rare ‘off-course’ vagrant.

JUNE 2020

At the moment there are plenty of posts and threads on social media about the current die-off. People are naturally upset and concerned, and want to know the cause of the phenomenon. I am recasting a post from last year to explain why this happens.

Exhausted shearwater beached on AbacoAudubons Shearwater Abaco Bahamas (Sharon Elliott)

Each sad bird is part of a tragic and recurrent phenomenon, a so-called die-off event. It almost always happens in June. The pattern is much the same each time, though the mix of shearwater species that succumb may vary. I first became aware of this problem in June 2015 and wrote about it then. That bleak time lasted for about a week, and many reports came in from mainland Abaco and the cays, stretching from Green Turtle Cay right down to Crossing Rocks.

audubons-shearwater-abaco-keith-kemp

There was thankfully no such problem in 2016, but in 2017 – also in June – there was another die-back event involving a large number of Audubon’s shearwaters (Puffinus lherminieri) appearing in the tideline and on beaches. Many were already dead. Some were still alive, but in a very poor state. Their prospects for survival would have been very low. A few birds were captured and cared for, but even then the chances of recovery were not good.

Shearwater die-off 2020 Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

Two years on, in 2019, the melancholy cycle repeated itself. Melissa Maura, well-known as an expert in the care and recovery of creatures of all kinds, posted an alert and some sound advice:

A heads-up to all Island folk that it appears to be a summer when exhausted Shearwaters (pelagic seabirds) are washing up on our beaches in Eleuthera and Abaco. I have had two calls in 24 hours. Should you find one, understand that it will be in a severe state of exhaustion and stress and that excessive handling will kill it. Please put in a safe pen on a sandy surface, with shallow pan of fresh water and try locate either fresh fish (important) or squid from a bait shop. This may have to be administered by gently opening the beak and inserting one inch long piece of fish every couple of hours until stable. Ideally they need tube feeding, but very few folk can do this. Please contact me on private message if you find any…

An exhausted Audubon’s Shearwater in the care of Melissa Maura (2019)Shearwater die-off Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

A Cory’s shearwater in rehab with Melissa 2020Shearwater die-off 2020 Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

WHY DOES THIS SHEARWATER DIE-OFF HAPPEN?
This is a periodic phenomenon that looked to be settling into a 2-year cycle in the Northern Bahamas (Eleuthera is also affected). This year’s die-off makes it 2 years running, an obvious great concern. The cause is a combination of factors, very likely stemming from prevailing mid-summer climate conditions and/or the effect of climate change. This can lead to a shortage of food far out in the ocean where the birds spend their days. This in turn leads to weakness and exhaustion as the birds fly increasing distances to try to find food. The birds may then land (or fall) in the sea, to be washed ashore in a very bad state, or more often dead. In 2017, well-known bird expert Woody Bracey noted a correlation between poor Summer fishing conditions out to sea, and an unusual absence of the frigatebirds that are a sure sign of a healthy fish population.
Shearwater washed up on the beach at Winding Bay
Shearwater die-off Abaco Bahamas (Rhona Pearce))
ARE PLASTICS A CONTRIBUTORY FACTOR?
As we must all accept by now, most if not all these birds will unavoidably have ingested some of our discarded plastic.  However, that in itself would not explain the simultaneous deaths of many birds of one type in a specific area, at exactly the same time of year, and for a few days only. 
Audubon's Shearwater (Neotropical Birds / Cornell / Brian Sullivan)
WHAT ELSE CAN BE DONE?
The dead birds on the shoreline will be quickly removed by the turkey vultures. If you do find one, you might want to bury it. The prognosis for sick birds is not good. They may have been carried a long way from open sea and they will be exhausted and starved. Those that are strong enough may recover naturally; but most will sadly die, being too weak and emaciated to survive. A few lucky birds will be found in a reasonable state, and be able to be nursed back to health. 
Melissa releasing a recent survivor from her careShearwater die-off 2020 Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura) “Need Fish”
PRACTICAL ADVICE
(1) move the bird gently into the shade if in the sun
(2) provide clean water in a shallow dish
(3) offer finely chopped fish BUT no bread (it’s very bad for birds)
(4) if this seems to be working, then carry on until the bird is strong enough to fly (this may be quite a commitment)
(5) do not reproach yourself if a bird you try to help dies. Many will be in such bad shape by the time they are washed up that they are unlikely to survive whatever steps you take
(6) remember that this a part – a sad part – of the life-cycle of these birds, and (as with other species), a degree of attrition is an inevitable aspect of natural life
A spell in the paddling pool – plenty of rest and fresh waterShearwater die-off 2020 Abaco Bahamas (Paul Harding))
Credits: thanks first to Melissa Maura for her tireless compassion in the care of damaged and diseased creatures of every kind; and to those on Abaco who have been reporting / commenting on this event over the last few days.
Photographers Dominic Sherony Wiki (1); Sharon Elliott (2); Melissa Maura (4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11); Keith Kemp (3); Rhonda Pearce (7); Brian Sullivan / Neotropical Birds / Cornell (8)
The perfect end to the careful rehabilitation of a very sick shearwater – June 2020
Shearwater die-off 2020 Abaco Bahamas (Melissa Maura)

4 thoughts on “‘A SADNESS OF SHEARWATERS’ ON ABACO: DIE-OFF 2020

  1. IF YUO DO FEED ANY BIRDS SMALL FISH, BE SURE TO TURN THE FISH SO THE BIRD SWALLOWS THE FISH HEAD FIRST OTHERWISE FISH SCALES CATCH INSIDE THE BIRDS THROAT. PUTTING THE HEAD IN FIRST MAKES THE FISH GO DOWN SMOOTHER

    Liked by 1 person

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