Blog&FB_2015Aug_IMG_0469_edited-1People love to fish and so do wildlife! The big difference between humans and wildlife is wild animals do not need nets, fishing line, lures, hooks or plastic bags when fishing. Therefore, they leave nothing behind that will harm or kill anyone or anything. Left behind fishing gear kills! Wildlife Rehabilitators at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport know this all too well and cringe every time a seabird, wading bird, grazing bird, mammal or turtle is admitted due to the ingestion or entanglement of fishing litter. It’s so painful for the animal and in many cases renders them unable to eat which leads to starvation. Sometimes the devastation is less obvious and can not been seen without x-rays because the animal has swallowed a hook or lure. This type of injury is so frustrating and heartbreaking to wildlife care givers because it is human-caused and therefore, preventable. Nets, lines, hooks, crab pots, shrimp traps or any other fishing equipment abandoned by a boater or someone fishing on shore is considered derelict gear, which labels a fisherman or woman neglectful and irresponsible. This type of dangerous litter is usually made of plastic and doesn’t decompose in water for possibly hundreds of years. Recently, a mature Red Eared Slider was admitted to our shelter who had tried to swallow not one but two fishing hooks. We managed to carefully remove the three pronged hook with bait still attached from his mouth without too much trouble or damage to tissue, but the long, single pronged hook was so embedded in the roof of his mouth and out the side of his cheek, it required a committee discussion on how best to go about getting that out with minimal damage or killing the turtle. Blog&FB_2015Aug_IMG_6413He may not have been noticed or made his way to us if he had become entangled in the line attached to the hooks. Turtles are air-breathing reptiles. When they are caught underwater on a line or in a net, they will drown because they are unable to reach the surface for air. When an animal is entangled in fishing line that has no give, the line wraps tighter and tighter around a leg, wing or neck constricting the blood flow and functionality of the organs, blood vessels and muscles in that area. A fish hook that an animal desperately tries to remove causes lacerations and tears leading to blood loss, serious infections and limited function in the area affected. Some animals, such as pelicans, live with the discomfort of an imbedded fish hook in their body for long periods of time. We know this because hooks have been found in the backs, underbelly or legs of pelicans during examinations for other conditions such as wing fractures or frost bite. Some seabirds have even been found struggling to free themselves from each other because they have become entangled together by a fishing line or multi-hooked lure that was carelessly discarded by a fisherman. During the birds’ struggle they create even more injury to their legs and wings as well as possible nerve damage. Birds and other wildlife that become entangled will experience strangulation, starvation, amputation and in many cases, death. Entanglement is a slow and vicious killer! Because monofilament fishing line is transparent, it poses serious risk to all life, including human swimmers and divers who encounter it.

Photo by John Althouse

Photo by John Althouse

The negative impact of fishing gear waste is huge. Research tells us that the overall populations of seabirds have declined 69.6 percent, which is a loss of about 230 million birds in 60 years. “Seabirds are particularly good indicators of the health of marine ecosystems and when we see this magnitude of seabird decline, we also see something wrong with marine ecosystems.” This information gives us an idea of the devastating and overwhelming impact humans are having on wildlife and our environment. So for those of us who care, what can we do to improve the quality of life for wildlife and our aquatic environment? Get the word out, first and foremost! Do not accept the very little thought given to snapping a line when a fisherman’s lure is stuck on something. In your travels along beaches and recreational waterways, do the birds and other animals a huge favor by looking around trees and shrubs and notice how much fishing litter is strewn or snagged in vegetation, then carefully remove it and dispose of it properly. If you are the fisherman, always take all line and fishing gear with you when you leave. Blog&FB_2015Aug__Fishing gearRemovedX_edited-1The best way for anglers to reduce hookings and entanglements is to avoid casting near large seabird concentrations. If you are in a boat, move to another area. Most piers are large enough for birds to feed in one area, and anglers to fish in another, or take a break – flocks do not usually remain in one area for long. Using barbless hooks or artificial lures whenever possible can also help. Weight fishing lines to ensure the bait sinks rapidly, before birds can dive for it. Don’t leave fishing lines unattended. Do not feed birds or leave bait exposed because it attracts birds. Take leftover bait home so that birds and other animals don’t get accustomed to free meals. Fish remains are a problem because most seabirds swallow their prey whole. Swallowing parts of fish with exposed bones can cut a pelican’s pouch. Think about starting a program to collect fishing line by constructing and placing collecting bins in the vicinity of your local fishing spots. Please fish responsibly and encourage others to do the same. These are all steps in the right direction for the preservation of our environment and wildlife, as well as public safety. If you encounter an animal that shows signs of entanglement or has been injured in other ways by fishing gear, please call your local wildlife care facility, and they will provide instructions on how to transport the wildlife victim to their center. It’s best not to remove the dangerous fishing gear litter yourself, but to trust the application of a wildlife rehabilitator’s knowledge and skills to ensure damage is not compounded during removal. Let’s do this for our wildlife – they need us!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse
author of “Save Them All

King of the Fishers

BlogMag_LT_2957When you’re birding and hear a distinctive loud, harsh rattling call and a large, pigeon sized bird flies out over the water, hovers and then plunges head first into the water, you have probably just witnessed a Belted Kingfisher in action. Once in a while Kingfishers make their way to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC due to tangling, concussive injuries or an overzealous hunting dog. Kingfishers can be found throughout the world’s tropics and temperate regions, although absent from some of the world’s driest deserts and also, the polar regions. There are many types of Kingfishers, but North Carolina is home to the belted variety only. Our Belted Kingfisher is approximately 13 inches long, 22” across when wings are extended, dull blue above, white below, with a bluish belt on the breast, except for the female who has rusty colored flanks and a brilliant rusty band across her chest. It’s quite the role reversal in the bird world for the female to be more brightly colored than her male counterpart. The wings and short tail-feathers are black, spotted and barred with white. The flight of this bird is rapid and its motions on the wing consist of a series of flaps, about five or six, followed by a direct glide. The large, some say enormous, shaggy head is crested. Their feet and legs are small in comparison to their body size and located too far back to allow for walking on the ground, which makes their feet fairly weak and only suitable for perching. Although somewhat large in comparison to songbirds, they weigh only 5 ounces. The kingfisher’s diet is mostly fish but they will eat crayfish, shellfish, small birds, mollusks, mammals, worms, insects and lizards. They seem to particularly enjoy grasshoppers. If these food sources are not available, they will eat berries. Their characteristic habit is to sit motionless while watching for their prey, dart after it and return to their perch. They “plunge dive” like a pelican from as high as 50 feet making a steep head-first dive into the water to catch small fish. Their aim must be perfect because they hit the water with closed eyes. They will then fly to a favorite, near-by perch with their prey and beat it to death before tossing it into the air and swallowing it head first. BlogMag_LT_3043After a tasty meal, they “disgorge” any indigestible bones and scales in pellet form. Wildlife rehabilitators learn quickly that Kingfishers do not peck; they make use of considerable jaw musculature to clamp down tightly with that long, straight bill. And clamp they can, which makes perfect sense when we remember the bird must dive into water to grab wiggly, slimy, smoothly scaled fish and hold on firmly if lunch is to be served; a weak bill just wouldn’t get the job done. Their grip is almost vise-like and to make matters worse both mandibles are edged with tiny irregular serrations that serve to hold slippery fish or the rehabber’s finger with great force. Ouch! Kingfishers also make tunnel nests in riverbanks with that sturdy digging tool mounted on their faces. They burrow into the vertical walls of dirt that edge a body of water, forming tunnels from two to ten feet. The entry hole is just large enough to admit the passage of a single bird at a time (safety feature!). In these tunnels, the female lays 5-8 nearly round, white eggs at one-day intervals and incubation begins by both sexes with the first egg. They hatch at one-day intervals, so the young are different sizes, the oldest up to a week older than the youngest. The parents do not remove the nestlings’ droppings like conscientious song birds do. Chicks apparently not only defecate in the burrow but also throw pellets containing indigestible prey parts. What a mess they must be living in by the end of the nesting period! So we learn that Kingfisher parents are not the good housekeepers other birds are known for. When food is scarce only the older nestlings survive, and there is much competition for the regurgitant food brought by the parents. About 23 days after hatching, the chicks are fledged, and the parents begin teaching them hunting skills. Although, you might see a youngster begging on a branch, you will probably never see the parents feeding them. Once they are in hunting “home” school, it’s all tough love with Mom and Dad! However, if threatened by a predator, Mom has been known to drop onto the water, fluttering and feigning injury to entice the intruder to wade or swim after her. All the while, her mate, perched on a branch or clinging to the edge of the bank, jerks his tail, erects his crest, vocalizes with angry intensity and then springs off to pass and repass the threat, with his most intimidating cry to fend off the dangerous intruder. BlogMag_LT_3120XBy 10 days after fledging the young are skillfully able to retrieve small fish. That means the parents’ job is done and the youngsters are driven out of their parents’ territory. Studies suggest that the parents are monogamous with the same pair coming together each breeding season and returning to the same burrow to breed and roost, for many years in succession. So bonding occurs with the adults but with the kids, not so much! Nest predators in our area will be raccoons or snakes and the adult and juvenile Kingfishers need to be on the lookout for the capable Cooper’s Hawk. North Carolina Belted Kingfishers overwinter here and will be joined by migrating Kingfishers from Canada and our New England region who are seeking ice-free areas to hunt. This species, although elusive and difficult to study, is listed as one of the top 20 priority avian species of concern.

Keep your eyes on watch for the King Fisher! 

Best Always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse, author of  “Save Them All