NO GEAR LEFT BEHIND!!!

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!!

BEST ALWAYS,
Linda Bergman-Althouse
author of “Save Them All

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PHANTOM of the MARSH!

BLOG_CSMag_ClapperRail_2015JunAThey do like the mud! The coastal saltwater marsh of North Carolina’s easternmost counties is home to one of the most secretive birds you may ever have the lifetime privilege to glimpse. Hearing a raspy chock–chock–chock, a short series of clacking or grunting sounds, might even be an easier discovery than seeing the “thin as a rail,” Clapper Rail. Their rattling call is one of the most common sounds in the marshes, although seeing this wetlands bird who likes to hide in dense cover isn’t easy. One of six rail species found in North Carolina, the gray and brown Clapper Rail, also known as the Marsh Hen, uses its lean body to easily slip through marsh grass while hunting and or escaping predators.BLOG_Clapper-Rail1 They would rather run through the thick mud than fly. Clapper Rails are considered weak flyers because flight has only been observed in low bursts of short distances, where landing shortly after taking off is common. Recently, four youngster Clapper Rails were admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter after a gentleman rescued them from the Beaufort Channel. The Good Samaritan and his wife were spending the afternoon on their skiff and happened upon the four being aggressively tossed about by waves mercilessly created by the large boats in the area. He pulled his skiff between the large boats’ busy passage and the four chicks to buffer the challenging waves and waited for nearly 45 minutes, thinking one of the rails’ parents would show up to lead them out of their precarious situation. When that didn’t happen, their rescuer became concerned that because the babies were so tiny, the large boats could unintentionally run them over. He decided to bring them onboard and transport them to our shelter in Newport to ensure their safety. He mentioned they were quite fatigued and might not have lasted much longer. They are definitely too young to be on their own, so his compassionate decision probably saved their lives and afforded them that second chance. Chicken like in appearance, the Clapper Rail has long, unwebbed toes, a lengthy downward curved bill and an upward turned tail with white under tail feathers. They are the largest of the rail species when fully grown, 13 to 16 inches in length with a compact body and long, strong legs. BLOG_clapper%20rail%202Although both are slender, the males are slightly larger than the delicately built females and a wee bit more colorful. Clapper Rails in North Carolina sport a fairly pale, olive brown or gray brown appearance with a subdued rust colored chest. Aquatic life is the Clapper Rail’s diet of choice. They forage for food by walking through wetland vegetation. Most hunting is done at low tide, where they scavenge for crustaceans such as crabs or crayfish, mollusks, snails, aquatic insects and their larvae, small fish or small amphibians such as frogs. They simply pick up food items when spotted or probe in the mud for food with their long bills. They are also known to snatch a snake or two and may occasionally feed on plant matter, mostly seeds, but approximately 80% of their diet is animal-based. Clapper Rails are monogamous and pairing is established and reestablished each year. During courtship displays, the male approaches the female, points his bill down and swings his head from side to side. Another impressive move is to stand erect, neck stretched with bill open. A male has also been known to feed the female. Nesting pairs enhance their bond by blending their clattering until they sound like one bird. Biologists refer to this “as one” initiative as a “duet.” The nesting season occurs from April to June. Nests, built by both the male and female, are cup shaped clumps of vegetation and are often found where ditches or creeks foster the growth of tall and short grasses, as well as, near the upper reaches of high tide or on a bank near water. Common nesting materials are hollow stems of plants and coarse marsh grasses. Occasionally a canopy will be woven over the nest, and often a ramp of plant material leading from the lower ground up to the nest situated in the wetland reeds will be constructed. Generally, nine to 12 eggs are laid, and rails may produce more than one clutch per year. Incubation averages 20 days and is performed by both sexes, as well as raising the young. BLOG_CSMagClapperRail&Babies_2015Jun_The chicks are semi-precocial and able to feed independently shortly after leaving the nest. Young rails are able to fly in nine to 10 weeks and acquire their adult plumage by October of their first year. A group of Clapper Rails are collectively known as an “applause, audience or commercial.” When a Clapper Rail sighting is made it usually occurs when the rail is focused on stalking for prey along the muddy edge of the marsh while twitching its short tail in anticipation of the grab.BLOG_CSMag_ClapperRail_2015JunB_ It may also be seen swimming across a tidal creek. Best viewing opportunities occur at dawn and dusk as the birds leave the thick marsh grass and feed on open mud flats. Their unique behavior, elegant appearance and characteristic shyness make them extremely sought-after sightings, but if you are that eager birder, always put the well being of the bird first. Remember, Clapper Rails would rather never be seen at all. Intentionally startling or flushing birds to get a good view exposes them to predators and may force them to leave nests or young unattended or abandon them altogether. So, never do anything that could hinder the survival of this mysterious phantom of the marsh. If you are lucky enough to see a Clapper Rail in the open, it may be under a bit of stress, so avoid adding to that by giving it a wide berth, and do not allow unleashed pets to approach it. Stay low and stay quiet. The long-term population trend of the Clapper Rail is most severely affected by water pollution, flooding of nests during Spring high tides and the destruction of coastal marsh habitat. Due to the rail’s secretive nature, the difficulty of working in marsh environments and a lack of funding for rail research, basic information regarding life history and yearly population status is limited. Clapper rail populations can best be maintained by preserving their wetland habitat and with strong support for effective protection laws. Our little Clapper Rails are putting away an abundant share of large meal worms as well as, silver sides and growing bigger and stronger every day. When they are ready, they will be returned to the marsh they call home.

Hope everyone is having a HAPPY summer wherever you find yourself to be!!!

Linda S. Bergman-Althouse, author of SAVE THEM ALL

“The Water Witch”

WPBlog_Pied-BilledGrebeFeb2014SubNot often do the volunteers and staff at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport get their hands on a Pied-Billed Grebe, but it happened just a few weeks ago. You see, Grebes are extremely elusive and won’t be found on land unless something has gone wrong. When someone with a compassionate heart found the petite Grebe scooting along the ground, it was thought at the time that the water bird must have a broken leg or two. So, the rescuer scooped him up and transported the short-billed, wide-eyed critter to the shelter. Our examination revealed no injuries to wings or legs and no presence of toxins or illness. Although Grebes rarely fly, when they do, it’s usually at night. So, because the small Grebe is not talking, our educated theory is during flight on a rainy night, an attempted landing on a shiny spot he misidentified as a body of water caused him to belly flop onto wet pavement. Fortunately for him, it was a landing instead of a dive, so although jarring, he survived the mistake but found himself displaced. We decided the best treatment plan would be observation, plenty of good food, water play and Rest & Recuperation so he could recover from the shock and trauma of the predicament he found himself in before we return him to his happy place in the wild. The Pied-Billed Grebe, also known as American dabchick, Devil-diver, Dive-dapper and Water Witch, as well as a few other names, are excellent freshwater swimmers and divers, but they don’t walk very well on land because their feet are far back on their body, similar to the Loon. They can run for a short distance on water, but on land they are not stable and will fall over. PB Grebes are small and stocky with a short neck, compared to other water or marsh birds. They measure between 12 – 15 inches in length and weigh only 9 to 20 ounces. Their wingspan extends from 18 – 24 inches. Their chicken-like bill is short, blunt and light gray. The PB Grebe is mainly brown with a darker brown head and back, which serves as excellent camouflage in the marshes where they live. In the summer the bill sports a black band and their throat area looks much darker, almost black. WPBlog_PiedBillGrebe_Feb2014Sub_edited-1Grebe feathers are dense, soft and waterproof. They have the ability to pull their feathers tight against their body to manage buoyancy as necessary. If danger lurks, they will dive, subtly – no big splash, basically just sink like a gator, up to 20 feet rather than fly to avoid predators. PB Grebes will stay under water for about 30 seconds while moving to a safer location. They often swim low in the water anyway, exposing only their head and neck watching for potential threats. During breeding season, the Pied-Billed Grebe couple, who have courted by singing to each other or together, will use a variety of plant material and twigs to build floating nests on the surface of the water. The nests are built close to shore but far enough away to protect them from a predator attack, which might show up in the form of a dog, cat, raccoon or human. They lay up to two sets of bluish-white eggs each year, numbering 3 to 10 per clutch. Incubation takes about 23 days and both parents oblige, although the female will take over the responsibility toward the end of the incubation period. If the parents have to leave the nest unattended, they will cover all the eggs with nesting material to protect them from predators while they are away. As soon as the youngsters hatch, they are able to swim, although not well and will climb onto a parent’s back for much of their travels until they are skillful enough to dive, hunt and swim like Mom and Pop. Both parents raise the young and will even dive for food with young ones clinging to them. Pied-Billed Grebes prefer to dine on aquatic invertebrates, such as crayfish, snails, leeches and insects but will also feed on small fish, frogs and tadpoles. Their stout, thick bill enables them to crush crustaceans like mussels. They sometimes add plants to their diet, too. An interesting and not well known fact about the “Water Witch” is they have a tendency to eat their own feathers and also feed them to their hatchlings. It’s believed that this odd diet choice assists in the formation of pellets containing indigestible material that can be expelled and to reduce vulnerability to gastric parasites. The greatest threat to the Pied-Billed Grebe is habitat loss. They need wetlands, and wetlands are being lost to draining and filling for residential use. Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) Morro Bay CA 13 Dec 2010Grebes are shy and very sensitive to disturbances. Even the waves from boats can destroy nests and cause frightened PB Grebes to abandon their nests. Grebes have been declared endangered or threatened in many states, although they haven’t made the list in North Carolina yet. Our Pied-Billed Grebe is a cooperative cutie and doing very well. He will be swimming and diving waters near you soon, and he may even be on the periphery of where you are by the time you are reading this article.

Dive on little Water Witch!! Dive on!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All