Seabirds have been washing up dead on beaches in Washington and British Columbia this summer, and scientists can't say why.
Rhinoceros auklets are one of the most common birds in the network of inland waterways shared by Washington and British Columbia. Since May, volunteer "citizen scientists" on the north side of the Olympic Peninsula and across the water in Victoria, British Columbia, have found dozens of the puffin-like birds washed ashore.
It's a tiny toll compared to the dieoffs of other species of seabirds in 2014 and 2015. Common murres and Cassin's auklets washed up by the hundreds of thousands up and down North America's west coast.
But scientists are concerned nonetheless.
"There's something larger going on here," University of Washington biologist Julia Parrish said. “If we ignore it and only pay attention when it’s really dire, then it’s often too late to do anything about it.”
Parrish runs the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, whose volunteer beachwalkers help scientists keep tabs on seabirds and garbage floating ashore in five western states.
"Normally you only have one or two birds reported any year," biologist David Bradley with Bird Studies Canada said. Volunteers with his nonprofit group have found some 30 dead rhinoceros auklets on beaches around Victoria. "So to see this many birds washed up in this short a time period is definitely alarming," he said.
Hundreds of thousands of the peculiar-looking seabirds live in Washington and B.C. The puffin relatives dig underground burrows to nest in, can dive 300 feet deep and mate for life.
"I wouldn't say that we're alarmed. I would say that we're alerted," Parrish said. "We're paying attention. It's like the light has gone from green to yellow, and we're looking around just to make sure it's not going to go to red."
A few of the auklet carcasses from Washington beaches have been sent off to a federal wildlife forensics lab in Wisconsin.
"They had zero body fat," Parrish said. "They definitely starved to death."
She said that's usually the case when a bird is found dead. But scientists are just starting to look into why these birds starved: Did disease leave them too weak to dive after fish? Did a bloom of toxic algae sicken them? Did their food supply run low? Parrish said answers could be weeks or months away.
Bradley said the auklets found dead near the British Columbian capital have not yet been sent in for forensic analysis.
"Most of our volunteers are pretty dedicated volunteers," he said. "They don't mind having a dead bird in their freezer."
"Just double bag it to avoid any problems," Bradley said.
Attack of The Blob
In 2014 and 2015, a gigantic pool of unusually warm water — popularly known as "The Blob" — spread across much of the North Pacific Ocean. The underwater heat wave changed the ocean food chain from top to bottom for thousands of miles. Seabirds were left with less of their preferred types of fish to eat, and they wound up eating less-nutritious prey.
"It's like going to the grocery store and only finding rice cakes," Parrish said. "You actually lose weight with all the muscle movement of just crunching [the food]."
Scientists believe the extreme seabird dieoffs in those years were connected to The Blob.
The Pacific has cooled off a bit since then, but vast areas are still warmer than normal.
"The temperatures have moderated to an extent, but the biology is still obviously feeling the effects of this marine heat wave," Washington state climatologist and University of Washington researcher Nick Bond said.
Upwelling of deep, cool water has allowed a thin strip of surface water along the Northwest coast to return to near-normal temperatures. But the seas farther offshore, including waters frequented by rhinoceros auklets, remain abnormally warm.
"Overall, the Northeast Pacific is really warm," Bond, who coined the term "The Blob," said.
Bond said the long-term forecast for the Northeast Pacific Ocean is for more warmer-than-normal temperatures through next year.