Seward, Alaska: Our starving eagles

“Three more!” I cried, pointing to the birds perched in the tree.

Driving through a neighborhood near the waterfront, we were witnessing something unexpected—a large convocation of eagles.  They were sitting atop telephone poles, perched on satellite dishes and rooftops, and even—as we saw when we turned the corner—blocking traffic in the street.

We circled the block several times and counted at least 12 eagles, maybe more, mostly juveniles but several adults as well.  We also saw three sitting on the beach with the ravens, crows, and seagulls.

It was as if the eagles were having a family reunion and everyone was in town for the weekend.


The next morning, I read a story in the newspaper written by a woman who’d found a sick juvenile eagle in Waterfront Park.  The bird was so weak that it could hardly fly.  She called Seward’s Alaska SeaLife Center (ASLC), and their wildlife response team captured the eagle, examined it, and found that it was starving.

I was immediately worried about the gathering of eagles we’d seen the day before.  Were they sick as well?

I emailed the ASLC to find out more.  ASLC is both a public aquarium and a research center and is the only permanent marine mammal rescue and rehab center in Alaska.  In my email, I described the scene that we had witnessed and asked if Seward’s eagles were sick.

Within a few hours, I received a response from one of the wildlife coordinators, and she confirmed that at least some of the eagles are starving.  It’s a much bigger issue, however, than just one group of birds in our little town; in fact, the problem started in the Pacific Ocean several years ago and affects not just Alaska but much of the West Coast.

Here’s what happened:

In the winter of 2015-2016, a tremendous die-off of common murres occurred.  Thousands upon thousands of this North Pacific seabird washed up all along the Alaskan coastline and as far south as California, dead from starvation.  A conservative estimate places the death toll at over 500,000 birds in Alaska alone, maybe the biggest seabird die-off on record. Locally, Seward’s waterfront was strewn with the carcasses of dead birds.

Common murre (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

While this was tragic for the murres, it was an all-you-can-eat buffet for the eagles and a windfall for their 2016 breeding season.

“We had multiple successful nesting sites around town,” said the SeaLife staffer, “with 1-3 eaglets fledging from each nest.”  Under normal circumstances, it’s uncommon for more than one eaglet to fledge, but, thanks to the abundance of food, a large number of young eagles survived and thrived this past spring.

Fast forward to the present: Seward has a population problem.  There are many juvenile eagles, and—now that dead seabirds no longer scatter the beaches—not enough for them to eat.  The SeaLife Center has rescued a number of sick eagles.

A young juvenile eagle
An older juvenile, his adult plumage almost intact

I’ll admit that, after reading the email, I immediately put “canned tuna” on my Costco shopping list.  Yes, my plan was to purchase a case of their cheapest (yet dolphin-safe) tuna and then drive around Seward feeding the birds, just like Jeane Keene, a.k.a., “the Eagle Lady,” did for many years in Homer, Alaska.

A convocation of eagles in Homer, waiting for the Eagle Lady to feed them (Source: Wikipedia)

I get why she did it.  The thought of starving eagles is pretty awful.

But what about the poor murres?  What was the cause of their mass die-off?  Well, just as with the eagles, they had nothing to eat.

The population of common murres is robust and they’re not even close to being endangered, but the sheer numbers that washed up on Alaskan shores alarmed scientists.  Seabirds reflect the health of the waters in which they live and feed, and their massive die-off was a sign that, across a large expanse of ocean, there was no food.  The small fish that murres eat just weren’t there.

Scientists have since determined that both the die-off of the murres and the disappearance of their food sources were caused by a precipitous rise in ocean temperatures over the past few years, which led to a patch of abnormally warm water in the Pacific known as “The Blob.”

An increase in water temperature can wreak havoc on an entire ocean ecosystem, changing the animals that populate the area while also eliminating the ones that are normally there.  It also provides the perfect environment for the spread of toxins that can affect the health of sealife.

Sick California sea lion pups being cared for at the Marine Mammal Center (Source: NOAA)

The murres aren’t the only creatures that were impacted by The Blob. Other sea birds, such as auklets and puffins, have exhibited large die-offs, and shocking numbers of emaciated California sea lion pups have been washing ashore along the West Coast, malnourished because their moms can’t find nutritious food to feed them.  In Homer, more than 300 epileptic sea otters died in 2015, infected with streptococcus syndrome, caused by a neurotoxin that thrives in warm water and results in encephalopathy and blood poisoning.   And several Alaskan whale species died off in such large numbers in 2015-16 that it was called an Unusual Mortality Event.  Plus, some sea lions have developed cognitive impairments that affect their ability to find food; sea stars by the millions have been stricken with a wasting disease that causes lesions and disintegrating body parts; and salmon, the life-blood of many Alaskans and other West Coasters, had abysmal runs in 2015 and ’16.

Now the eagles are impacted.  “It’s an unfortunate situation,” the Alaska SeaLife staff member said, “and the eagles at the top of the food chain are now suffering from the problems at the bottom of the food chain last year.”

So… yeah.

It’s pretty depressing.

There is good news, however.  While some of the eagles rescued by the SeaLife Center had to be euthanized, others were transferred to the Bird Treatment and Learning Center, a mostly volunteer-run facility in Anchorage that receives sick birds from all over the state.  Bird TLC rehabilitates and releases those birds that can return to the wild while offering a permanent home to the ones that can’t.

This past weekend, we just happened to meet a fantastic volunteer from Bird TLC who was in town for a bird demonstration at the SeaLife Center.  We were doing our usual animal watching at the waterfront when we saw a Subaru with a large crate in the back, a handwritten label on its side:

We were intrigued and had to ask, “Is there really a live eagle in there?”

Turns out there was—a golden eagle (as well as a freaking adorable little short-eared owl in a smaller crate).  In addition to showing us her avian companions, she also talked to us for quite a while about Bird TLC and her role as a volunteer (which involves travel and lots of interaction with birds, so it’s basically awesome).  She said that Bird TLC rehabilitates sick birds from all over the state, and when they’re unfit for release back into the wild, they stay at TLC and become bird ambassadors, like this beauty:

The Bird TLC volunteer and her friend, a golden eagle

What a lovely thing to see.

~~~~~

Whether 2017 will it be better for North Pacific Coast animals, I can’t say.   One of the factors causing the warmer water, El Niño, has faded, but The Blob is still around, and water temperatures are predicted to remain above normal this year, so we’ll see how things go.

After some thought about the whole cycle-of-life concept, however, I removed the tuna from my shopping list and decided to leave the bird rehab to the experts.  Alaska is a tough place to live, and not everything will survive the winter, but we feel gratitude that facilities like the SeaLife Center and Bird TLC are around to provide support for those creatures that may need a little extra help.


Notes:

  • I’d never heard of Jean Keane before researching this article, but she was a fascinating little woman who fed Homer‘s eagles for years.  Her regular feedings created a huge spectacle and drew photographers from all over, but her detractors felt that it was wrong to feed wild animals.  Here’s the Eagle Lady’s Wikipedia page and a YouTube video of her feeding the eagles.

It’s now illegal to feed predatory birds in Homer, and I’m betting this is true of Seward as well (although we’ve seen sympathetic souls doing it…)  The SeaLife staff member told me that right now the birds are looking for any place that might offer an easy source of food.  “They’re looking for garbage and whatnot in alley ways, and I’ve seen a couple garbage cans tipped over with large amounts of eagles, crows, and ravens all enjoying what they find!”  She also said that around five eagles have been roosting at her house, but it’s not because she’s feeding them.  She likes to think that they “sense a house full of empathy if nothing else.”

  • This photo has become one of my all-time favorites, so it would be an appropriate time to point out that, unless otherwise specified, Dale takes all of the beautiful photos that I post on the blog.