Seabirds washing up on the UK's North East coast
There has been numerous reports and sightings of dead sea birds, mainly guillemots, being found on the coast and washed up on the North East beaches of Scotland and England.
This may be an unusual sight for most humans, but to scientists is is not as rare as everyone thinks.
As guillemots are a bird that lives out at sea, only returning to land to breed. During winter months when there are a lot of colder temperatures and storms, more guillemots than other sea birds do die off in what seems like large groups. This is called ‘wrecks’.
Normally their deaths are attributed to bad weather making it harder for them to hunt and eat, so they starve or find themselves unable to keep warm.
Estimating the numbers of birds killed during wrecks is difficult, usually involving counts of dead birds on stretches of coastline, but not all birds that die at sea get washed up, so the true numbers killed by storms are probably a lot higher. Scientists will have to wait until the next breeding season to get an idea how many birds were actually affected.
The last two ‘wrecks’ in the UK recorded by scientists were in the autumn of 1969 in the southern Irish Sea and in February 1983 on the east coast of Britain.
Guillemot numbers were reduced dramatically during the 1969 ‘wreck’ which saw their estimated numbers reduced to 2000 breeding pairs.
However the scientists are concerned at the timing and volume of birds being spotted.
The current ‘wreck’ has scientists investigating as there are a few differences from normal ’wrecks’.
it is happening much earlier in the year when the weather is not normally cold enough to affect the birds.
Has there been more storms out at sea than normal?
More birds have been spotted at shore than normal. Does this mean their normal feeding area has been interrupted or contaminated in some way?
Whatever the reason, it is clear that this is a worrying thing.
One thing that was discovered in previous ‘wrecks’ is that lots of the dead birds were very underweight and had high levels of PCB (organic toxins) in their system. Which initially led scientists to think it was a chemical/environmental poisoning that killed the birds.
However after further research, it was discovered that the birds were in fact generating the PCBs themselves as a last act of survival due to starvation. As they were unable to hunt, for whatever reason, their bodies were metabolising the very last reserves of fat, which released PCBs in the stored fat.
Scientists have ruled out bird flu as being a cause.
The UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology are investigating the occurrence and the possible causes.