Every Bird Matters
news and views from international bird rescue

March 30, 2018

Sometimes in a Spill Crisis, No Wildlife is the Best Outcome

Spill Location, Shuyak Island, Alaska

In February, just as many of our team were arriving for our co-hosting duties of this year’s National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association conference in Anaheim, CA, International Bird Rescue was called to respond to an oil spill in the remote islands of the Kodiak Archipelago.

The details were only just emerging: a 3,000-gallon bladder stored inside a dockside building fell into the ocean when strong winds caused the building to collapse.

Spectacled Eider pair, photographed by Jay Holcomb

Bad weather and surging 15′ waves prevented anyone in the response team from reaching the location in that first day, so available wildlife information was limited. Local knowledge of the area suggested that sea and river otters, seals, whales, and a variety of birds were regularly seen in the region. Our biggest concern was that the location of the spill (within a narrow strait) could mean that a large number of seabirds were weathering the storm in that very spot.

Among those of highest concern were vulnerable sea ducks like STELLER’S EIDER and SPECTACLED EIDER (shown left). These species tend to overwinter in massive flocks, making them especially vulnerable to oil spills because a large group could be affected all at once.

This effect was the case during the Treasure Oil Spill in South Africa in the year 2000 in which we participated as part of the

Photo of Treasure Oil Spill Penguin Rescue

International Fund for Animal Welfare’s (IFAW) now-defunct spill response team, which affected more than 40,000 endangered African Penguins and still represents the largest and most successful wildlife response in history. To the right is an image from that spill response and demonstrates our worst fears for a large-scale disaster.

Since the spill location was hard to access, we were kept on standby in Anchorage alongside the incident command while we prepared for the possibility of oiled birds at International Bird Rescue’s Alaska Wildlife Response Center (IBR-AWRC). Preparations included developing a wildlife response plan with other wildlife agencies present, walking through the center, checking availability of our extensive response team for immediate deployment, performing inventory checks on our clinical supplies as well as those of our partner Alaska Chadux Corporation, an oil spill response organization which handles the environmental cleanup while we handle the wildlife.

Trusty bottle of Dawn dish soap in the response container ready to be deployed

The response effort achieved “boots on the ground” on the third day as the first responders were able to access the spill site and give a better assessment of actual impacts. There were no reports of oiled wildlife and all wildlife seen anywhere in the vicinity were behaving normally. This positive result was likely the result of two combining factors: harsh weather and the dense nature of the oil product that spilled.

To read more about the official account: Port William Shuyak Island Bunker C Spill.

As the week progressed, there were still no reports of oiled wildlife and we were able to spend our early evenings after the work day conducting a Bird Rescue tradition: Wildlife Surveys. Wildlife surveys involve seeking out native animals and birds in their natural habitat because:

  1. they prepare us well for the next spill by acclimating the team to the specific dynamics in a location, and
  2. since we’re all animal lovers, they provide rare opportunities to see wildlife from other regions.

Among the sightings from the Anchorage area: several MOOSE with yearlings, DALL SHEEP, COMMON RAVENS, RED-BREASTED NUTHATCHES, BLACK-CAPPED and BOREAL CHICKADEES (great for comparison), BROWN CREEPERS, COMMON and HOARY REDPOLLS, PINE GROSBEAKS, a very cooperative SHORT-EARED OWL, and a NORTHERN SHRIKE.

When I return to Alaska as a trainer in July, I’ll be looking for my next target: BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS, and I’ll keep you posted how that goes.

We are glad to report that to date no wildlife have been seen as affected by this spill. The cleanup effort continues and will likely do so for quite a while. In a spill response, however, no wildlife is often the best possible outcome. 

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