Silver lining in Cosco Busan spill: Great volunteers

For every dark cloud there’s always a silver lining and the horrible Cosco Busan oil spill was no different. Hundreds of dedicated volunteers showed up from all over California and from the far reaches of the United States to care for oiled birds. They helped transport birds, washed laundry and cleaned cages. Without their incredible efforts the success we had returning washed birds back into the wild would not have been possible.

Two of our “new” local volunteers, a husband and wife team, Yvonne McHugh and Tony Brake of Berkeley (pictured above on the far right and left), share their stories:

For me, volunteering at IBRRC in Cordelia following the Cosco Busan disaster relieved a sense of helplessness and despair by focusing my physical and mental energy on the care and treatment of aquatic birds oiled in the spill. Due to that experience, I’ve often imagined that it would be appropriate to have painted over the entrance to the IBRRC in Cordelia, “Embrace hope, all ye who enter here”.

I had recent bird handling experience from working with raptors in the banding program of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory (GGRO), but at the time of the Cosco Busan spill, I hadn’t participated in rehabilitating oiled birds since the late 1970s or 1980s (at the Aquatic Center in Berkeley). When I started helping in the IBRRC Wash Room, it was tremendously heartening for me to discover the technical progress that had been made in washing oiled birds, both increasing the release rate and sparing the washer as well. There was another up-side to this task: During the hours spent holding birds for their washing and rinsing I began to notice differences in hard-wired behavior between bird species, as well as individual personalities. My previous experience with seabirds, waterfowl and waders had been simply to identify them and observe their behavior through binoculars and to compare the field marks to those in the color plates of birding field guides – I never anticipated the extraordinary beauty of these birds when viewed from only inches away; the feel and luster of their feathers; the intelligence in the evaluating gaze of a Brown Pelican; the expressive and varied vocalizations as the birds protested being washed and rinsed; or, the species-specific bill-pinch or poke that the birds used to try to re-establish their comfort zone.

By the end of the first day of working in the Stabilization Room (a.k.a., the Hot Zone or Holding 2), catching and holding birds for their tube-feeding and re-hydration, and helping with examinations and collecting lab samples, I committed to learning as much as I could about species-specific oiled aquatic bird treatment so that I would be more useful at IBRRC in the future. It should be noted that in spite of those working in The Hot Zone being in crisis-response mode, I experienced amazing kindness from the IBRRC staff and the experienced volunteers. Day after day, sweating for hours in oil-smeared Tyvek coveralls in a hot room reeking of bunker oil, they still managed to be patient and to maintain a sense of humor while training us new volunteers: when I was given the task of retrieving an American Coot from a lower wall cage, and it ended up sitting on top of the head of my experienced colleague like a fancy Coot hat, she joined me in a good laugh. This, she told me, was not unexpected behavior for the very elusive and always dashing-for-freedom Coot. And it was not an uncommon event for the Tyvek coveralls of the experienced volunteers to get “decorated” with explosive streams of mash or fish slurry because we newcomers had once again forgotten their advice to hold the feeding tube on tightly to the syringe tip while pushing hard on the plunger.

Between Wash Room and Hot Zone stints, I managed a banding and “paperwork resolution” station in the Drying Room (Holding 1) along with other volunteers whose assignment was to re-organize and file the paperwork. As slightly steaming, rather soaked volunteers in fogged-up safety glasses, apron, boots and gloves emerged from the Wash Room, I would by any means (other than raising my voice) capture their attention and direct them over to my station. Each held a washed and rinsed bird completely bundled up in a towel, and on top of the towel would be the bird’s previous leg band, removed before washing (often oily). My job was to note the time, the species and the old band number into the Log; and then to re-band the bird with a Tyvek band, having written the number on the band so that it was legible and indisputable (68 versus 89, careful with 4s and 7s!). It was while re-banding the washed birds that I first became aware of the beauty and variety of aquatic birds’ feet, for instance, the delicate shading of the grebes’ and loons’ leaf-like feet, which are never illustrated in conventional birding field guides! After banding, I would guide the volunteer to the person managing the rows of pelagic boxes in which birds were being dried. The final task was to update each bird’s paperwork (this sometimes involved tracking it down in the Hot Zone or the Clinic), and then turn it over to the other volunteer working with me to file it. It was a miracle how well it all worked.

One evening after the Wash Room closed for the day and my banding and paperwork station shut down, it was discovered that an additional 60 pair of little socks were needed for birds coming in from the cold water pools to spend the night in pelagic boxes. Three volunteers (a young student studying barnacles at a local college, my hsuband and I) set up a rapid little sock assembly line to make sizes appropriate for a variety of species (short, medium, long and very long lengths – again, you don’t learn about foot size and hock length from a birding field guide!). Each of us experimented to find the best way to make them (goal: efficiency, the least tape needed, and sturdy). Our varied cutting and taping strategies made me wonder what solution an equal number of MIT students would have come up with under similar circumstances.

It makes perfect sense that releasing healthy rehabilitated birds is the highlight of the IBRRC volunteering experience. As soon as the birds’ body condition and blood values indicate they are releasable, the IBRRC staff moves into high gear to find a trained volunteer to release the birds as soon as possible at an appropriate pre-designated location – this offers the best chance for survival. One day I transported and released an assortment of bird species into Horseshoe Cove (Fort Baker) by the Golden Gate Bridge, then drove back to the IBRRC and picked up a Ross’ Goose for release at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) north of Williams.

When I arrived at Fort Baker the cove was filled with a hundreds of Western and Clark’s Grebes. First, I opened the transport carrier doors for the Brown Pelicans – without hesitation they walked slowly into the water with a dignified air, swam about 50 feet into the cove and got to work giving their large wings a thorough cleansing. They flapped their wings so hard that it sounded like bed sheets flapping on a clothesline during a Santa Ana wind or a large jib luffing in the middle of a tack in a strong breeze. They paddled out of the cove toward the bay. I saw them catch the ebb current and off they floated toward the bridge. Next, two transport boxes of Bufflehead – as I opened each box the birds burst into flight. They flew about 300 feet to the east side the cove and landed closely together. A released Greater Scaup swam briskly away, but then hauled out on the other side of the cove to preen. Eventually it re-entered the water and seemed fine. A Western Gull flew to a piling and preened. The other birds simply flew or swam away without a backward glance. Freedom!

I had been instructed that the Ross’ Goose needed to be released at a location where it could join up with Snow Geese; and with enough daylight hours left for it to find its way to a flock for its first night back in the wild. I had gotten behind schedule due to monitoring the released Greater Scaup at Fort Baker, so when I arrived at the Sacramento NWR there was only about an hour of daylight remaining. I located a Snow Goose flock in a field about 2 miles along the auto tour route, about a half mile away from the road. But when I set the transport carrier down at the edge of the field and opened its door, the bird stayed quietly inside. I finally tipped the carrier forward a bit so that the goose walked out, but it didn’t seem to sense the Snow Goose flock even though their contact calls were audible. I tried to encourage it to go toward the flock by slowly walking behind it, still wearing my green rubber boots necessary for the earlier releases. The bird walked in an “S” pattern, and so necessarily did I, to keep it moving in the right direction. I looked at the bird, a lone, bright white bird on a big brown landscape, and knew that I either had to ensure it found the flock or I had to take it back to IBRRC for the night. At that moment, a goose several hundred feet ahead flew up into the air, calling, and the Ross’ Goose immediately took to the air, also calling, and joined it. The previously injured wing treated at IBRRC looked fine in flight. Through my binoculars I tracked both geese until they landed in the middle of the Snow Goose flock. Then I raced back to Berkeley and got to my polling place in time to vote.

We cannot imagine a better place to volunteer than the IBRRC at Cordelia. There is a convergence of shared goals and interests; all Staff members are uniquely well-qualified to manage volunteers; and science and compassion find a perfect marriage in the IBRRC volunteer program.

– Yvonne McHugh

Another impression:

How did we come to be regular volunteers at the IBRRC? Like many of the newer volunteers, we got our start during the response to the Cosco Busan oil spill last November (2007). Our path to the IBRRC was a bit circuitous. We first heard about the Bay Bridge collision of the Cosco Busan on Wednesday, November 7, but had only heard of the initial report of a small spill of bunker oil (140 gallons). Somehow, we missed seeing any updated news indicating that the spill was of major proportions. On Friday morning, however, we saw the front page spread of the SF Chronicle detailing the extent of the damage to the SF Bay, in particular seabirds. (We spend a lot of time observing the birds on San Francisco Bay and had just recently noticed the arrival of large numbers of wintering birds such as Surf Scoters and Common Loons off-shore from the Berkeley Pier.) We were anxious to somehow help, but didn’t know where to volunteer. The SF Chronicle story mentioned an OSPR meeting at Richmond Marina the next day to inform potential volunteers about the activities of OCWN and IBRRC. We attended the meeting, but unfortunately it turned a bit chaotic in part due to the large number of people who showed up. We did manage to find out there that there was an operational center set up at the Berkeley Marina through the Shorebird Park Nature Center, which was searching for and collecting oiled birds for transport to the IBRRC. I stopped there on the way home from the meeting and signed us up as volunteers and spent a couple of hours late in the day patrolling the shore for oiled birds.

In the meantime, we had received an email from Michael Martin of the Golden Gate Audubon Society (GGAS) who was organizing volunteers to monitor sites on San Francisco Bay that might otherwise not be surveyed, i.e., places where no oil was reported, but birds oiled at other locations might seek refuge there. We were assigned to a group led by Glen Tepke to survey the south shore of Alameda. We indeed found numerous oiled birds some of which had beached themselves and others that were still in the water, but trying to preen their oiled feathers. At the Oakland-Alameda boundary we spotted the Cosco Busan. The ship had been unloaded of its cargo so the huge hole in its port side was now well above waterline. This was a starting conclusion to our first day of monitoring the effects of the oil spill.

We sent the data from our survey (species and location) to Michael Martin at GGAS, who forwarded it to the OSPR Search and Collection teams. We continued monitoring this area throughout the next week with Harv Wilson who recorded the exact locations of oiled birds with GIS. He later aided the OSPR crews in locating and capturing some of the oiled Alameda birds once the OSPR was able to expand its efforts from the heavily oiled areas of the Bay. Later, while we were working in IBRRC Oiled Intake, I noticed two birds from the Elsie Roemer Bird Sanctuary in our Alameda survey area brought in for care.

It was frustrating to be unable to help the affected birds that we found and we were anxious to find a way to take a more active role in the response, if possible. Early the next week, we got a call from Patty Donald of the City of Berkeley Shorebird Park Nature Center recommending that we call the IBRRC in Cordelia if we were interested in volunteering at the rehabilitation center. Unlike Yvonne, I had no bird handling experience other than once rescuing a fatally injured Western Screech Owl from the road in Berkeley’s Tilden Park, but I hoped to be able to contribute to the rehabilitation effort in some manner. Thus, we leaped at the chance to be able be involved in a hands-on way. We reported in at IBRRC about five days after the initial oil spill for the initial orientation and stepped right into the fray. What a mind-blowing scene! We got our start in the washroom. It was an amazing experience to see these tragically oiled birds being washed to reveal their beautiful feathers so important to their survival. Over the next few days we worked in other stages of the operation including Oiled Intake, Stabilization and the Drying Room. Although there were many heartbreaking moments (e.g., triage in Oiled Intake), it was particularly delightful to see the birds that had made it outside to the cold-water pools preening and diving and looking like the birds we see in the wild. A highlight was when we were invited to come along for the “wash room crew” release of some rehabilitated birds at Heart’s Desire Beach on Tomales Bay on November 21st. The celebrity of this release was a pelagic species, a Rhinoceros Auklet who, when placed on the water, immediately dove and then put on an exhibition of underwater “flying” through the shallow crystal clear water before heading off into deeper waters of the bay.

We were impressed with the skill and dedication to the staff and experienced volunteers, not to mention their patience with novices such as us. We knew right away that this was an opportunity to gain training and experience to be of more substantial help in the case of any future spills. After working at the IBRRC numerous days in the weeks following the spill, we signed on as regular weekly volunteers at the end of December 2007 and feel very fortunate to be part of what might be called “Team Aquatic Bird”.

–Tony Brake

More info:

Sign-up to volunteer in San Francisco Bay Area or Southern California

IBRRC response to Cosco Busan oil spill

2 thoughts on “Silver lining in Cosco Busan spill: Great volunteers”

  1. Wow, I’m so moved by Yvonne’s narrative that I haven’t yet read Tony’s. Most touching was the care with which the released birds were followed. I was “right there with you,” reading about how you couldn;t leave without knowing how each bird fared after leaving the box. Thanks for expressing so eloquently many of the things I felt during the spill, and couldn’t put into words!

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