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Friday, October 26, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tempest-tossed grebes: PAWS takes on big rescue of birds stranded by windstorm

Seattle Times staff reporter

Trees and power lines weren't the only victims of the high winds that lashed Western Washington earlier this week.

Caught up in Tuesday night's storm were scores of Western grebes, red-eyed water fowl that spend their winters along Washington's coast.

Pushed onto the beach at Ocean Shores by the high surf and unable to return to the water, the grebes were stranded, their feathers gritty with sand. Many were molting and unable to fly.

The birds would have starved if they hadn't been rescued by employees of an Aberdeen pest-control company who happened across them on a drive along the beach.

As of last night, more than 70 birds had been brought to a Lynnwood-area wildlife-rehabilitation center run by the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). It's the largest group of birds the center has ever taken in at one time, and at least a dozen more are expected to arrive this morning.

Three grebes were dead on arrival, and a common murre was euthanized because it was so sick. In addition, two white-winged scoters — a kind of sea duck — were rescued.

It's rare that the seagoing grebes get into this kind of trouble, said PAWS naturalist Kevin Mack. In fall 1998, a similar storm brought 120 birds to the center over the course of a few weeks.

The biggest problem facing the birds is dirty feathers, Mack said. Once sand and debris get in the feathers they tend to lose their natural waterproofing and the bird can suffer hypothermia. The birds also have a tougher time floating, he said.

Adding an element of mystery is the fact many of the grebes that Mack is monitoring are molting and have lost their flight feathers, with new ones just starting to grow back.

How to help


PAWS is a nonprofit organization that relies on public donations. Towels and sheets are needed, as is money to pay for medicine, food and supplies to build more galvanized pools and drying pens for Western grebes. For more information, call 425-787-2500, Ext. 817, or visit www.paws.org.
But according to Steve Mlodinow, an Everett physician and bird expert who has written a number of books about North American birds, the Western grebes should have molted in late summer before they began their fall migration to salt water.

"It is a bit of a mystery, and as of now we have no specific explanation," Mack said.

In the meantime, a team of PAWS employees and volunteers are clocking 17-hour days to look after the grebes. Because the birds are severely stressed — and being around humans is a big part of their anxiety — the birds have to be tube-fed with a fish-and-vitamin slurry seven times a day.

The PAWS center is already expecting a massive bill for constantly running water through the galvanized pools where the grebes are put to clean their feathers and rub oil secretions onto them from a gland located below their eyes.

While some birds may need to be at the center for two weeks or longer, others will be ready for release in the next few days.

Their release depends on how quickly the grebes recover since some were emaciated and anemic when found, Mack said. He's scouting locations now, looking for a saltwater cove where the birds will be better protected. Western grebes live in water year-round, breeding in small lakes and ponds during the summer and migrating to salt water in the fall. Puget Sound is one of the major wintering grounds for Western grebes, with many more spending cold months along Washington's coast, said Mlodinow. The area's biggest population winters off Edmonds, he said.

Sara Jean Green can be reached at 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com.

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