Pacific Flyway

Massive bird die-offs on NW coast tied to mysterious algae spawning toxic sea foam

A massive, weird and sickening environmental story is breaking along the coast of the Pacific Northwest: A toxic form of algae previously detected only rarely in those waters is killing thousands of sea birds.
The single-celled algae called Akashiwo sanguinea is causing what sounds for all the world like a red tide, producing large swaths of chocolate- and rusty-colored waters. According to a story by Lynne Terry in The Oregonian, such deadly blooms have been detected off California and elsewhere worldwide in the past, but the algae has previously been picked up only in small and isolated areas of the Pacific Northwest. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service press release says the algae began showing up in September in Washington.
The birds most affected are sea ducks -- white-winged scoters and surf scoters. Surf scoters' numbers have been trending down for some time now, worrying scientists and citizens such as those who walk Pacific Northwest beaches looking for dead birds. That network of beachwalkers is run by  University of Washington bird scientist Julia Parrish, who estimates that algae outbreak this fall has reduced scoters' West coast population by 5 percent to 7 percent:
That is a pretty significant bite into those species. I don't think it will knock the population back for years. But at least with surf scoters -- a species that's in decline   -- conservation scientists are rather concerned about it.
An earlier story by Terry and the press release outline the gruesome mechanism by which the algae kills the birds: When the single-celled algae are broken down by wave action, they create a toxic sea foam.

InvestigateWest in the field: Monroe's Swift Night Out

As part of InvestigateWest's advancing story on the Pacific Flyway, this past Saturday I spent the evening with a thick, buzzing crowd of bird watchers as we gathered in semi-rural Monroe, Washington for a twice a year avifauna spectacle – the fall migration of Vaux’s Swifts.

[caption id="attachment_3838" align="alignright" width="270" caption="Photos by Natasha Walker"]Photo by Natasha Walker[/caption]

By dusk, the grassy lawn outside Frank Wagner Elementary School was all but overflowing with plastic lawn chairs, picnic blankets and bobbing swift headbands, courtesy of the school's crafty students (see photo). Education booths hosted by local Audubon Society chapters lured both amateur and experienced “Swifties,” who were eager to talk about their love for a bird that weighs less than two quarters, and shows its face only in May and September.

About a thousand of these cigar-shaped creatures descended on the school’s ancient, unstable brick chimney that night – as always, thirty minutes before sunset and in a counter-clockwise, tail-first spiral. Once inside, they overlap like shingles on the brick walls to hibernate for the evening.

[caption id="attachment_3844" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Vaux's Swifts descend into Monroe chimney"]Vaux's Swifts descend into Monroe chimney[/caption]

The sunset aeronautics are stunning, but the night is not just a show for the flight-hearted.

Salton Sea unites interests of enviros, ag

Our reporting trip to the Salton Sea is over, and we're headed back over the mountains to LA catch a plane. I'd love to stay a few more days, because it's turning out that the Salton Sea is a man-bites-dog story in another sense from the one I cited yesterday.

Here's why: After years of hearing about how the agriculture that surrounds this key stop on the Pacific Flyway is harming the sea, it now turns out that ag and the Sea's defenders are making common cause.

That's because what the farmers need is water. And what the Sea needs is water. And they're both going to lose it.

As part of a massive reordering of the way water is used in Southern California, something like 2oo,000 acre-feet of water a year -- that's roughly 100,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools -- will be withdrawn from use by farmers whose Imperial Valley fields surround the Sea.

Now, you need to understand that water flows into the sea, but not out. Something like six feet of water evaporates every year. And why is it a "sea" if it's inland? Because the Colorado River water that's diverted into the farm fields around here carries with it a small amount of salt, along with pesticides, fertilizer and selenium. Over the years, water dumped on the farm fields flowed eventually into the sea, carrying its light load of salt. But as the water evaporated, it left behind a larger and larger load of salt. (Update/clarification 9/12/09: I realize in re-reading this that it might not be clear that a lot of the salt ending up in the sea is actually leached from the farm fields immediately surrounding it. I guess I also should have mentioned that the Salton Sea already is saltier than seawater.)

So long as water continues to flow into the sea, and continues to evaporate, the water gets saltier and saltier.

North Slope drilling continues, affects birds

ExxonMobil completed drilling its second well on Alaska's North Slope, reports the Associated Press. Both wells in Point Thomson, a natural gas and condensatefield, are expected to be drilled to their final depths by the end of 2010. The field contains an estimated 8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which is only 25 percent of the North Slope's resources. ExxonMobil plans to cycle gas by injecting it back into the reservoir, making it the largest gas cycling plant worldwide. It also plans to connect a pipeline to the TransAlaska Pipeline System.

The gas in Point Thomson is crucial for the development of a proposed multi-billion dollar pipelinethrough Canada and into the lower 48 states. ExxonMobil is backing TransCanada Corp. in the creation of the pipeline, and BP and Conoco Phillips are working on their own pipeline project, called Denali, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

Development of the North Slope has spawned controversy for years about the cost of the pipeline necessary to get the gas out, as well as environmental impacts. A recent study shows the massive project has had a negative impact on birds who nest in the area, reportsAndrew C. Revkin in the New York Times.

– Emily Linroth

From the shores of the Salton Sea...

I'm in Southern California, on the shores of the famous Salton Sea, gathering information for a forthcoming InvestigateWest project on the Pacific Flyway.

This is the desert -- albeit one with water running all over the place in concrete aqueducts, and green fields of hay, courtesy of the irrigation.

ExxonMobil's guilty plea -- a step toward protecting migratory birds?

Exxon Mobil Corp. pleaded guilty today in the deaths of 85 protected migratory birds, most of which died after landing in or ingesting oily waste in the firm’s natural gas well reserve pits and wastewater storage facilities, reports the Associated Press. A violation of the international Migratory Bird Treaty Act, ExxonMobil  has agreed to pay $600,000 in fines, or around $7,000 per bird.

The battle between waste storage sites and migratory bird routes is a national dilemma, with major bird flyways stretching up and down the continent and spanning the globe. While the birds that died under ExxonMobil’s watch perished in drilling and production facilities in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming, there are similar tales panning out across the West. (Readers: We're working to understand the condition of the Pacific Flyway. If you know about this, please e-mail me at nwalker (at)

In Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, residents and tribe members have been battling state and federal agencies, who plan to use a local repository as a dumping site for nearly 40,000 truckloads of soil contaminated with heavy metals, a byproduct of a century of mining pollution, reports Becky Kramer of The Spokesman-Review. Besides concerns about storing the toxic waste in an area that floods regularly and fear that the 30-feet high dumps may obstruct the views of Cataldo Mission, a National Historic Landmark, the site resides just 3,000 feet from a river and a thriving wetland.