Recurring Bird Deaths Baffle; Pelican Losses near Mayport Still a Mystery

Article excerpt

Byline: Caren Burmeister, Shorelines staff writer

Baffled by what has been killing pelicans every winter for the past decade, environmentalists are again ordering autopsies and other tests to determine what killed dozens of pelicans recently in the Mayport area.

About 60 dead pelicans were found along the St. Johns River in the last week. A biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission took several of the dead birds to the University of Florida on Monday to determine what caused the deaths.

In addition, water samples were taken from the river about a quarter-mile east of the U.S. Coast Guard Station on Mayport Road and sent to a Tallahassee lab for testing, said Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Jill Johnson. Obtaining the results will take about four weeks, she said.

Preliminary autopsy results on three juvenile pelicans show they were severely emaciated and had hemorrhages in their intestines and on the inner pouches of their necks, said conservation commission spokeswoman Karen Parker. One bird had a minor air sac infection and another had a severe chronic ulcer in the esophagus, probably from a fish hook or fish spine. Getting final test results on the pelicans' blood will take about a week, Parker said.

BEAKS, Bird Emergency Aid & Kare Sanctuary on Big Talbot Island, is nursing about 120 sick pelicans, said Cindy Mosling, a co-founder of the rehabilitation center. For some reason, the pelicans have lost their natural weatherproofing, which makes the birds stay sopping wet and succumb to hypothermia.

Because environmental agencies have received no new reports of oil or chemical spills in the Mayport area, some biologists are resorting to the same conclusion as in years past -- that cold weather is making the birds sick.

The surviving birds appear to have been stripped of the natural oils that coat their feathers and protect them from cold winters. The emaciated birds may be reluctant to plunge into cold waters to feed, said Terry Doonan, a wildlife biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

While a Navy vessel reported Jan. 11 that it spilled 2,700 gallons of light fuel in the Jacksonville area, the spill was well contained and quickly cleaned up, said Phil Wieczynski, chief of DEP's Bureau of Emergency Response.

"We do not believe this has anything to do with the birds that began dying three weeks later," Wieczynski said.

Winter storms increase the occurrence of transport spills, making January, February and March the peak spill season, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's field manual of wildlife diseases.

"This is also the time of year when seabirds and waterfowl congregate in wintering areas, resulting in an increased potential for significant bird losses," the manual states.

Annual tests on dead pelicans found in the Mayport area between January and March have shown no toxins or chemicals.

"This has happened almost every winter for the past 10 years," Doonan said. "During a previous die-off, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent birds for testing, but no toxins or chemicals were found. We believe that, although it is a good idea to test these birds, this is a natural phenomenon that occurs almost every winter in Florida."

But Mosling doubts the cold weather conclusion, in part because it doesn't hold true for other pelicans in the area, including 40 that stay in an open pond at BEAKS, just a few miles north of Mayport. They haven't gotten sick or died from the cold weather.

"Why are they alive and the ones at Mayport dead?" she asked. "It appears they [sick pelicans] are contaminated. Something has stripped their natural protection from their feathers."

This time, the birds' feathers are more wet and soaked, she said.

The conservation commission needs the test results before it can explain the lack of oil in the birds' feathers, Doonan said. …