Seabirds found dead on Nome beach
On Sunday, Austin Ahmasuk went along the beach to his camp at the Sinuk River, about 28 miles from Nome, and shortly after hitting West Beach past the port, he found one dead seabird on the shore. And then another, and another.
In total, he said, he spotted 66 dead seabirds of various species and in various states of decay on this 28-mile stretch of beach.
“In my opinion, I think 66 dead birds seems out of the norm,” he said in an interview with The Nome Nugget. Ahmasuk described the birds being auklets, murres, gulls, scooters, some puffins and cormorants. He also noticed a Black-legged Kittiwake acting in a peculiar way. “It was acting kind of drunk,” he described. “It was half-heartedly flying away, trying to dive and then didn’t.” He said the seascape was rough and the wind was blowing around 15 mph, with overcast skies.
Ahmasuk reported his observations to the Nome-based agent of the Alaska SeaGrant program Gay Sheffield and to Kawerak subsistence director Brandon Ahmasuk. Brandon Ahmasuk noted that sometimes birds die naturally when blown by strong winds off course or in the springtime or winter when food is scarce, but the number of birds and the timing – midsummer — strikes him as unusual. In the fall of 2013 a significant number of seabirds were found dead on St. Lawrence Island and the cause was determined to have been Avian Cholera. A few years later, a multi-species die-off event happened at the Pribilof Islands and it was determined that the birds died of starvation.
Sheffield reported the die off to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Management office in Anchorage. Kathy Kuletz, biologist with USFWS, agreed with Ahmasuk’s concern about the timing. “It is unusual to happen in the summer,” she said in an interview with the Nugget. However, she said, in the last few years die offs have happened increasingly in the summer time and the cause of deaths was starvation. But what caused the birds not to find enough food remains unsolved.
As soon as the rainy weather improves, Gay Sheffield and Brandon Ahmasuk are planning to collect samples of the birds from West Beach to be sent in to USFWS. Kuletz said the birds will then be sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, where experts will conduct first necropsies on the birds to determine injuries and to see if they, too, show signs of starvation and emaciation. This would take about a week. Then they take tissue samples to determine if there was a disease or toxin involved in their deaths. Those exams are more involved and have to be done in different labs, so test results from tissue samples will take three to four weeks.
Brandon Ahmasuk reminds people to report finds of dead birds or other marine species to either him at Kawerak 443-4265, or to Gay Sheffield at 907-434-1149. “We help to enhance communications from the region to the correct response agency,” said Sheffield.