The incidents are known as ‘seabird wrecks’, and people have been reporting them up and down the east coast, from as far north as Byron Bay, in New South Wales, to Tasmania.
“It’s just devastating to see,” says Australian Seabird and Turtle Rescue volunteer and photographer Silke Stuckenbrock.
Silke says over the last month, every time she has walked on the beach, she has encountered dozens upon dozens of dead seabirds, mostly short-tailed shearwaters, all emaciated.
“Some clearly have been washed ashore dead, or have drowned in the surf, while others look like they have crash-landed on the beach,” she says.
Although it’s not uncommon for exhausted migratory birds to be found dead on Australian beaches, the scale of these wrecks is not usually of this magnitude. This has prompted plenty of speculation as to why so many birds are dying this season – not just in Australia, but worldwide.
Although these events have been poorly documented in the past, Adrift Lab marine scientist Jennifer Lavers says the scientific community is seeing a correlation with climate change.
“As a whole, it does appear that these events are becoming more frequent…in line with the frequency of marine heatwaves,” Jennifer says. “…We have seen some pretty significant mass-mortality events just in the last decade, which also suggests that the severity of the events is rising.”
These ‘seabird wrecks' occurred over the last month at One Mile Beach, NSW. Image credits: Silke Stuckenbrock
Marine heatwaves to blame
According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, a marine heatwave occurs when ocean temperatures are warmer than usual over a long period, slowing the growth of certain fish species, stressing other creatures – prompting them to move elsewhere – and affecting habitats. Put simply, warmer water can lead to fewer fish, which can lead to starving birds.
With an ‘off the scale’ marine heatwave forecast for Australia this summer, and significant losses of sea life predicted, Jennifer says this month’s wrecks could be just the beginning. “We are still getting fresh birds washing up…which suggests that this is ongoing, and the prediction is for it to be ongoing,” she says.
Short-tailed shearwaters (Ardenna tenuirostris) aren’t the only species being found dead on our shores; albatross and raptors are also being reported but Jennifer says it doesn’t mean their deaths are also linked to this marine heatwave. “Across the huge number of people who are reporting, and the thousands of kilometres of beach that are being searched, we would expect to see a variety of species,” she explains.
When it comes to other wreck theories, some people are quick to blame wild weather, however Jennifer says this isn’t the reason the birds are dying, because they have evolved to take advantage of windy conditions. What people might see is that the wind has pushed already deceased and frail birds ashore. “To get to a condition where they are so weak that they can’t even really thrive in their natural habitat requires weeks of being deprived of the things that they need. Not days, weeks.”
Death by plastic consumption has also been ruled out as causing these wrecks. Jennifer says that adult birds don’t accumulate large amounts of plastic in the way fledglings and chicks do. “Right now the birds that are dying on beaches are 100 percent adult birds, so plastic – we can’t say it plays no role, but it is unlikely to play a driving or major role.”
The majority of seabirds being found dead are short-tailed shearwaters (Ardenna tenuirostris), like these photographed at Curl Curl Beach, NSW. Image credits: Silke Stuckenbrock
How you can help
Australia doesn’t have a national reporting system for seabird wrecks, which is why everyday beachgoers are important for compiling information.
“Citizen science plays a key role in these massively widespread events,” Silke says. “We are the eyes and the boots on the ground.”
Silke describes public observations as pieces of a giant puzzle, with the information collected helping current and future studies. “In this case, our observations provide a snapshot of what’s happening along the entirety of the East Coast of Australia; that is impossible for a handful of scientists to do by themselves.”
So, whether you’re simply walking your dog along your local beach or heading out for a weekend surf, if you see a dead shearwater you can report it to Adrift Lab.
“These days, with mobile phones in pockets, it’s extremely easy to take images and make notes of distances walked. Even GPS locations are embedded in the photos,” says Silke.
And even if you don’t see any birds, scientists still want to hear about it.
“It’s just as important for me to know that citizen scientists walked a beach and saw zero dead shearwaters as it is to know that they saw three, or nine,” Jennifer says. She adds that, without such reports, she wouldn’t know if people haven’t come across the birds or they simply haven’t documented them. She also asks for people to keep reporting all summer, and you can do that by following these instructions:
How to report dead seabirds
- The name of the beach.
- The date you visited.
- Approximately how far you walked.
- How many people are counting with you.
- The number of birds you found.
- Photos to help with species identification.
Contact Adrift Lab:
Image credit: Silke Stuckenbrock
What not to do
It’s important that if you see a dead bird you don’t touch it. Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), or Avian flu, is an issue of great concern in the Northern Hemisphere, and there are concerns of when, not if, there will be outbreaks in Australia. Because of this, do not handle any dead seabirds, and do not let dogs approach them; HPAI can cross species. If you find a bird that is alive and you want to take it to a carer, wear protective clothing, use a towel to pick it up and transport it in the boot of your car. It’s also wise not to take it into your house.