Thursday, January 31, 2008

LoonWatch awards funds for botulism E research

ASHLAND, Wis.–The Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College is pleased to announce Common Coast Research & Conservation (CCRC) as the recipient of the 2007 Sigurd T. Olson Loon Research Award for its proposal “Evaluating the scope and scale of common loon mortalities associated with botulism E outbreaks in northern Lake Michigan.” CCRC is a non-profit organization dedicated to the study and protection of common loons and their aquatic habitat. The $2000 award will fund one year of the project and is administered by the LoonWatch program.

“Our research committee felt that this study was long overdue and that it could shed light on changes in local, specific breeding populations,” said Stacy Schaefer, environmental education coordinator for the LoonWatch program. “This project will generate previously unknown information about a significant mortality factor for common loons, and encourages cooperation between citizens and the agencies and groups that will handle future botulism E outbreaks.”

The proposed study will be led by researchers Joseph Kaplan, Damon McCormick and Keren Tischler and the goal of the project is to gain a better understanding of the number of water bird mortalities associated with outbreaks of type E botulism bacteria in northern Lake Michigan. CCRC will develop a uniform method of surveying beaches where large numbers of dead birds have washed ashore and build a network of volunteers and agencies to aid in conducting these surveys. The data collected during the surveys will then be compiled and used to determine the extent of the problem and its potential effects on the common loon population.

Although water bird die-offs due to ingestion of the bacteria have been recorded in the lower Great Lakes since the 1960’s, the frequency and extent of the problem has increased sharply in recent years due to the introduction of exotic species to the Great Lakes and a rise in average water temperature. Botulism E outbreaks are believed to be responsible for the deaths of more than 50,000 water birds since 1999, including some 15,000 common loons. During the field portion of their research Kaplan and the others also will collect and archive loon feather samples for use in ongoing research related to mercury and other stable isotopes. Since 1986, the Loon Research Award has provided funding for original research that leads to better understanding and management of loon populations. This award program is named after biologist Sigurd T. Olson, whose 1952 paper with William H. Marshall, “The Common Loon in Minnesota,” continues to be cited as one of the premier baseline reports on the biology of the Common Loon.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Botulism E Update from Canada

Date: 29 Dec 2007

National Post

The carcasses of hundreds of dead loons have washed up on the shoresof the Great Lakes in recent months, and necropsies on the birds donot explicitly say what is killing one of the country's nationalsymbols.

But the fat, healthy-looking birds have congested organs and half-digested fish in their stomachs, leading biologists to believe the loons succumbed to a spreading epidemic that has killed 75,000 birds, including 9000 loons, in the Great Lakes since 1999.

Diseased bird carcasses appeared this year [2007] for the 1st time on the beaches of Georgian Bay, a wildlife expert said. Last year[2006], the deaths were seen for the 1st time in Lake Michigan.

"Rather than sporadic outbreaks, which have occurred for years and years, now it is becoming much more generalized over the Great Lakes. It's becoming more widespread," said Kate Welch, a diagnostician withthe Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre, who performs necropsies on the birds. The loons, symbols of Canadian wilderness, died after eating badfish. More specifically, the loons died of type E botulism.

"The thought of botulism turning the Great Lakes into killing fields,it's not a good situation," Joe Kaplan, a biologist in Hancock,Michigan told the Muskegon Chronicle. The toxin produced paralyzesthe loons, Dr. Welch said; when they are no longer able to hold theirheads up, they drown."

"The loons, which are very emblematic for Canadians, are verylong-lived birds," Dr. Welch said. "They live up to 20 years or more,and if we're losing a substantial number of those birds in theirprime reproductive years, it may be 10 to 15 years before we see whatthat is going to do to the population as a whole."

Exact figures for the loon deaths are difficult to tally because the birds live almost entirely on water, and many of their bodies never wash ashore to be counted, she said. "There are probably huge numbersof mortalities that we just never see.

"There are about 545 000 loons that nest each summer in Canada, and while scientists do not believe they are in any immediate danger of being wiped out by type E botulism, the outbreaks could quickly reduce their numbers. Loons produce on average less than one chick per year.

No cases of human illness have been associated with the avian botulism outbreaks that have occurred on the Great Lakes. Humans only come in contact with type E botulism by eating infected fish or birds.

Over the years, people have been shaken by shores littered with dead loons, geese, ducks, gulls and cormorants. Horrified passersby at harbors or waterfront parks watched birds flailing around helplessly or struggling to keep their heads above water. Local media reported on the mysterious mass avian deaths.

The [disease] surfaced in the western end of Lake Erie in 1999 and quickly spread to lakes Huron and Ontario. The worst year was 2002,when 25,000 dead birds were counted in Lake Erie alone, according tothe Pennsylvania Sea Grant, a research program in Erie, Pennsylvania.

The deadly chain reaction started in the 1980s when zebra mussels and gobies, both invasive species, hitchhiked into the Great Lakes in the ballast tanks of ocean freighters from the Caspian Sea.

"It's a bit of a wake-up call that invasive species have long-term repercussions," Dr. Welch said. "They have substantially altered the ecosystem of the Great Lakes to the point where now we are seeing much more botulism."

Geoff Peach of the Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation said that the United States and Canada need to enforce strict regulations governing ballast water management, or else other non-native species could find their way into our lakes.

Type E botulism results from a naturally occurring toxin, soconservation officials can do little to prevent the deaths. Butscientists are working on interrupting the food chain.

A team of researchers from the University of Windsor and the Ministryof Natural Resources are trying to create a tablet that will release sex pheromones to attract gobies and trap them.

Lynda Corkum, a University of Windsor ecologist who studies gobies, said gravid females swim toward the scent [that] scientists captured by leaving a male goby in a tank for several hours. While it is impossible to trap enough round gobies to reduce its population -- she estimates there are about 10 billion round gobies living in the western basin of Lake Erie -- the research could be used to stop gobies from spreading to inland rivers and lakes.
[Byline: Melissa Leong]

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Conference on Bird Monitoring Programs

If you are interested in bird conservation, please join the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative (WBCI) at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay on March 14-15, 2008, for a conference highlighting exciting new opportunities for birders and wildlife enthusiasts to help monitor and conserve Wisconsin’s birds. Friday will feature a birding field trip along Lake Michigan guided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Chris Wood, a former Wisconsin birder and current WINGS Birding Tour leader, and a dazzling presentation on Wisconsin’s birds in the tropics by Craig Thompson, chair of WBCI’s International Committee. Saturday morning talks will emphasize new citizen-based bird monitoring opportunities in Wisconsin, such as secretive marshbirds, nightjars, and Kirtland’s Warblers, and the afternoon will include hands-on workshops on eBird and the Wisconsin Birder Certification Program. The lineup of speakers and workshop leaders features such notables as Noel Cutright, Chris Wood, Bob Howe, and others.
Don’t miss this opportunity to learn about and sign up for upcoming bird monitoring programs in 2008! Save the dates and look for more details, including the conference agenda and registration form (it's free!), coming soon to WBCI's website at See you in March!