While NL guillemot population appeared healthy over winter, experts keep a close eye on avian flu – CBC.ca Pipa News

While NL guillemot population appeared healthy over winter, experts keep a close eye on avian flu – CBC.ca

The guillemot population in Newfoundland and Labrador appeared healthy during the winter, according to seabird expert Bill Montevecchi. (Submitted by Ian L. Jones)

A deadly strain of bird flu that swept through seabird colonies in Newfoundland and Labrador last summer and early fall is still a cause for concern heading into a new year, an expert warns.

Bill Montevecchi, a seabird biologist at Memorial University, said the county’s colonies were “hammered” by the disease last year, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of birds of various species, many of which washed up on coastal shorelines and beaches to the bewilderment of connoisseurs, hunters and bird lovers.

“We started last April, we had a massive extinction of guillemots due to ice conditions on the southern coast of Labrador. We’re sure that killed thousands of birds and right after that, in May, the virus started showing up on the west coast,” Montevecchi told CBC News Monday.

“Then it went on all summer. Tens of thousands of murres, the same goes for gannets. [It was] a huge impact and those will be the questions this summer when we go back to the colonies. Do we see gaps or are those gaps filled by non-breeding birds?”

Montevecchi said the birds are resilient, but climate change, on top of bird flu, is putting populations at risk.

He said experts hope for the best this summer, but remain realistic as they closely monitor the colonies.

A white bird lies dead on a sandy beach.
Thousands of dead birds, like this gannet in Point Lance, washed up along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador last year. (Patrick Butler/Radio Canada)

“The mortality due to the spring event and the mortality due to the virus are unprecedented. It’s never happened at that level before,” he said.

“And it continues because, like COVID, the expectation is that the birds will still carry some of that virus and the question is whether it’s fatal or what the consequences will be.”

Montevecchi said it’s hard to predict how seabird populations will fare this summer.

The first bird flu cases were detected in Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve in early June. Montevecchi said scientists were “terrified” it would wipe out the colony.

But the blow to the population didn’t happen until late July, he said, and experts still haven’t answered why.

A man sitting on a rocky cliff near an ocean.
Bill Montevecchi is a seabird expert at Memorial University. (Josee Basque/Radio-Canada)

“The temperature of the water got abnormally high so we had a heat wave at the end of July and we think – we can’t prove it – maybe that extra stress from the hot water made it hard for the parents to get food.” to their young, they carry the virus and the stress just pushed them over the edge,” Montevecchi said.

“It depends on a combination of things. It seems that sometimes the animal could have the virus and survive, but if the situation is stressful it could push the bird over the edge. It’s that really complex combination of things that will determine how it turns out.”

But the winter showed some positive signs for the guillemot population.

Montevecchi said there was a reduction in annual winter hunting in terms of the number of people actively participating in the event.

He said many hunters didn’t go out of concern that the virus was still lingering, but those who did hunt reported healthy birds.

“Basic reports coming back from hunters was there was one, there were a lot of birds and the birds were all in good condition, and also Environment Canada, I believe, has tested these birds for the virus and has yet to pick up any positive signs of it virus,” said Montevecchi.

“So it looks like there was less hunting, which would give the guillemots a respite, and the hunters who hunted seemed to do well, seemed to do well, got good birds, and the birds, as far as we can tell, seemed healthy What happens this summer when it gets warmer remains to be seen.”

Listen to the full interview with CBC Radios Newfoundland morning:

CBC Newfoundland morning10:35 amIt has now been a year since bird flu made its way to the island of Newfoundland. We checked in with biologist Bill Montevecchi

Around this time last year, word of the avian flu was just beginning to spread across Newfoundland and Labrador. The virus eventually wiped out thousands of seabirds along our coasts over the summer… especially turr and gannet populations. To stay abreast of the impact of bird flu, we contacted local seabird biologist Bill Montevecchi.

Meanwhile, the two resident swans of Bowring Park in St. John’s have died along with seven ducks, the city confirmed in a statement Friday, adding that the cause of death was bird flu.

“The cygnet turned out to be sick and soon died; a week later, the older swan was found dead in the duck pond [in] Bowring Park,” the statement read. “The older swan, along with seven ducks found dead in the pond, have been sent away for testing and appear to have died of bird flu.”

The city is asking the public to refrain from feeding the birds in Bowring Park, noting that there are several signs on site discouraging the act, but people still do it.

“We are asking individuals to please stop feeding birds. As long as the practice continues, we fear we will see more fatalities,” the city’s statement read.

“We have discussed these deaths with those responsible for detecting, testing and monitoring avian flu. They have announced that bird flu is on the rise in the area, so mortality is to be expected.”

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