ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Dutch Harbor residents have been feeling the chill of the state’s severe weather this week -- including the Aleutian Islands port’s bird population, with several seabirds and bald eagles spotted on land and coated in ice after weeks of freezing rain.
Reid Brewer, an associate professor with the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, says he received a call Tuesday morning about a crested auklet in the hills above nearby Unalaska. The region has been pummeled by a northerly for the last two weeks, producing sustained winds from 30 to 40 knots.
Before he could get moving on frozen roads, though, getting into his vehicle posed a major challenge.
“There was ice built up on cars -- I actually had to break into my car with a sledgehammer,” Brewer said.
When he found the bird, it was unable to fly or move -- a possible sign of hypothermia, which can kill seabirds if moisture breaches their waterproof outer layer of feathers and saturates their undercoat.
“It looked like it was partially (frozen),” Brewer said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It looked like it was very cold and shaking.”
The auklet seemed unharmed when Brewer took it his office and inspected it for damage. He then called the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, as well as Barbara Callahan at the Alaska Wildlife Response Center in Anchorage, for advice.
“Ultimately, the conclusion they came up with was that it was best to get the animals back in the water as soon as possible, and out of the weather as soon as possible,” Brewer said.
Callahan says she’s worked with Brewer before, during the 2004 grounding and breakup of the cargo ship Selendang Ayu off Unalaska Island. Dutch Harbor has no dedicated seabird treatment facilities, which means handling seabirds there involves some tough choices.
According to Callahan, it’s dangerous for many seabirds to spend time on land because their legs aren’t designed to walk or support their body weight for long periods. The birds risk injury on hard floors or even cardboard boxes, and require specialized materials to transport.
Back in Dutch Harbor, Brewer took the auklet to the local small boat harbor for release, reasoning that it was a sheltered location where the bird could safely be put back in the water.
“But on my way there, I ran into three common murres that were on the road near the small boat harbor,” Brewer said. “I collected up all three of those and released them into the small boat harbor as well.”
Because the birds also weren’t eating or feeding while they were ashore, Callahan says her advice to Brewer focused on three essential steps.
“Get the ice off, let ‘em warm up, and then release them,” she said.
“All the birds immediately seemed to engage in normal activities -- diving, swimming away -- and (they) didn't seem to have any negative impacts for the birds,” Brewer said.
With the seabirds taken care of, Brewer headed back to his office, but he hadn’t seen his last bird of the day.
“Once back in my office, I noticed that a lot of the (bald) eagles that were in our local parking lot had iced-up feathers,” he said. “One in particular had a cape of ice that covered its back.”
While federal law prohibits handling seabirds or bald eagles, Callahan says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tends to acknolwedge people working to rescue seabirds as Good Samaritans -- but rescue groups universally warn people against handling eagles without training. Eagles can remain warm even with their outer feathers iced, as long as their down undercoats remain undisturbed.
Unable to intervene, Brewer took some pictures of the eagle as it moved around and tried to break away some of the ice.
“Unfortunately I didn't get a picture of it until the animal had attempted to fly, flew about 10 meters and landed on a truck,” he said, “but you could still see that its feathers were frozen together all the way up to the top part of the head.”
Brewer says this week’s conditions aren’t unpredecented in Dutch Harbor, but haven’t been seen in several years. While he only saw four seabirds and what he estimates as half a dozen bald eagles, he suspects other birds have also been hit hard by the weather.
“There are likely a lot more out there,” Brewer said. “Unfortunately, the conditions have been so bad that most people are stuck inside their houses, so hopefully we won't see too many birds washing up dead in the next couple of days.”
Email Tim Akimoff