On October 3, the first winged victim of the Orange County oil spill washed up in Newport Beach. His white and light brown feathers were covered with black coarse. Cold, oily water had seeped through his sleeping bag and onto his skin.
Ten days later Sam Christie, a wildlife care specialist with the UC Davis Oiled Wildlife Care Network, lifted the bird – a red duck – from a soft blue box and placed it at the edge of Huntington Harbor. . Healthy and stripped of its oil, it acted like the ducks; he glided across the surface of the water, paddling his feet and nodding his head.
“The birds never do anything to say ‘thank you’,” Christie said after leaving Wednesday morning. “They hate us, they’re terrified of us, and they’re stressed out all the time. They don’t know we’re helping them. So that’s the only thank you we get, it’s just to see them leave us healthy. “
As of Tuesday evening, wildlife officials collected 28 oil-covered birds from the Orange County coastline, all of which underwent clean-up and rehabilitation with experts from the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. According to director Dr Michael Ziccardi, six of these birds have since died or been euthanized.
“Other animals are doing very well in rehabilitation,” Ziccardi said. “We will never have absolute assurance that all of these animals survive liberation, but they look very good.”
Back in port, another small water bird, an eared grebe, was released alongside the red duck on Wednesday. It took off as soon as it hit the water.
The two birds had spent several days rehabilitating together in an outdoor pool at a primary care center in San Pedro. They ate live insects and dead fish while experts monitored their health and made sure their feathers were free from not only oil but soap as well.
The tight alignment of a bird’s feathers helps it stay warm, fluffy and dry, Christie said. The oil disrupts this structure, leaving a cold, waterlogged bird. While a cocktail of solvent, dish soap, and hot water removes the oil, it also prevents the feathers from realigning properly, causing the same problems as oil. “Whatever we put on them, we have to refrain from it,” Christie said.
Christie, who has responded to dozens of oil spills during her career, was on the job when the red duck she released into the wild on Wednesday first arrived at the facility for treatment. He had 150 grams of crude oil stuck to his feathers, or about a third of his total body weight.
Oil wreaks havoc on a bird’s system, causing it to “waste away,” Ziccardi said in an interview. Weighted down by oil and cold water, a bird must expend more energy to fly, float, and maintain its body temperature at 103 degrees. Unable to do so, a bird will run aground in an attempt to stay warm. But its food is in the water.
“They can’t eat,” Ziccardi said. “It’s really a vicious cycle.
In addition to the 28 live birds collected by the Ziccardi team, 45 birds came to the experts who died on arrival. Ziccardi said “a subset” of these birds were visibly oiled.
“Unfortunately, not all of them are successful,” said Christie. “They have a lot to face. And we do our best. But those who succeed are survivors, and that’s pretty amazing.
Among the survivors are seven federally threatened Western Snow Plovers, who were picked up from Huntington Beach and Newport Beach when the spill began. The birds are now free of the oil, and experts have observed them eating insects and preening their feathers as they prepare to return to the wild.
It is too early to determine the long-term effects of the Orange County oil spill on sensitive habitats and wildlife in the area, said Laird Henkel, senior environmental scientist in the Office of Prevention and Response. California Department of Fish and Wildlife Spill Kit.
But one thing is clear: By the end of the response, “the environment should be brought back to baseline,” Henkel said. “There shouldn’t be any residual oil left here that would impact the birds later on.”