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Originally published September 14, 2009 at 12:08 AM | Page modified September 14, 2009 at 10:13 AM

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About 100 dead or sick sea ducks found at Kalaloch, LaPush beaches

Researchers have found at least 100 dead or sick sea ducks on two Northwest Washington beaches — Kalaloch and LaPush — since Friday, likely due to a bloom of toxic algae in the coastal waters.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Researchers have found at least 100 dead or sick sea ducks on two Northwest Washington beaches since Friday, likely due to a bloom of toxic algae in the coastal waters.

The bird kill appears to be mostly afflicting two specific breeds of sea ducks — the white-winged scoter and the surf scoter — that eat shellfish. The kill also appears to have hit only the Kalaloch and LaPush beaches, said Julia Parrish, executive director of Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), a citizen science project from the University of Washington.

"We're seeing dead and almost dead birds and in huge numbers," said Parish, director of UW's Environmental Studies Department. "If you go to outer coast beaches, you might normally see one dead scoter in a kilometer. We're seeing more than 100, and reports that some are staggering around."

Researchers have sent several specimens to a federal laboratory in Madison, Wis., to discover more about the cause of death. Results are expected later in the week.

Mass bird kills, called "wrecks," periodically appear on Pacific Coast beaches; the last one of this size was in 2007. After hearing initial reports of dead birds, volunteers from COASST scanned Washington and Oregon beaches over the weekend, but found clusters of dead sea ducks only around the two beaches.

Barb Maynes, spokeswoman for the Olympic National Park, said at least 60 dead sea birds were found at the popular Second Beach near LaPush. She cautioned beachcombers to stay away from dead sea birds, but said none of the park's beaches were closed.

The sea ducks — large black birds with bright-orange bills — are a declining population, said Mary Sue Brancato, a resource-protection officer with the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. "It is not doing the population any good to have a wreck like this," she said.

As volunteers scan for dead birds, staffers from the state Department of Health are assisting the investigation, said Brancato. Health Department staffers were unavailable late Sunday.

Initially, observers thought the sea ducks may have been caught in a storm, Brancato said. But attributing the deaths to the algae bloom is "a good working theory" because the sea ducks feed off shellfish, she said. "We've been getting reports of the bloom being quite extensive," said Brancato.

Seabird deaths are closely watched because they are seen as an indicator of ocean ecosystem health. In 2007, hundreds of emaciated, dead and dying birds were found on Oregon and Washington beaches, a possible byproduct of rising ocean temperatures.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

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