Tragic scenes on Bondi Beach as rescuers flock to ‘upsetting incident’

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Animal rescuers and lifeguards have responded to one of Sydney’s worst mass seabird deaths.

After flying 15,000km from Alaska, dozens of short-tailed shearwaters washed up on Bondi Beach on Saturday afternoon. Reports of the birds continued throughout the weekend, and the next day more than 60 more were found south near Cronulla. Several exhausted surviving birds were rescued from turbulent waters and placed under surveillance.

Reports of shearwater deaths have steadily increased over the past decade, but WIRES volunteers told Yahoo News Australia this is one of the worst they have seen in Sydney.

Left - A lifesaver hands over a shearwater to a WIRES volunteer.  Right: Rescue volunteers helping shearwaters.

WIRES rescuer Penny McMullin volunteered with Australian Seabird Rescue, Sydney Wildlife Rescue and lifeguards to help the surviving shearwaters. Source: WIRES

Despite being noticeably pregnant and just four weeks away from giving birth, WIRES rescuer Penny McMullin joined a handful of dedicated volunteers in Cronulla on Sunday.

“Unfortunately there were quite rough surfing conditions and then if you look at the sand where there was seaweed on the beach there were also large clumps of shearwaters,” she said.

“They were scattered all the way, it was really disturbing. There were a few live ones strewn along the beach and some floating in the water. We could see they were struggling so we were lucky that surf lifesaving volunteers were able to jump into the water and grab them.”

Why large numbers of shearwaters are dying

Bird rescuers and keepers have been taking in orphaned baby birds all spring, but fear they will no longer be able to respond to shearwaters if these events become more regular.

It is feared that Sydney will experience regular mass deaths on a scale comparable to regular mass deaths from flying foxes. During extreme weather events, thousands of bats regularly succumb to the heat, a situation made worse by climate change and habitat loss.

Left - a shearwater on Bondi Beach.  That's right: garbage bags full of dead shearwaters.Left - a shearwater on Bondi Beach.  That's right: garbage bags full of dead shearwaters.

Exhausted surviving shearwaters (pictured) were collected, while the dead were piled into garbage bags. Source: WIRES

Cronulla beach (left).  A dead shearwater on the sand (right)Cronulla beach (left).  A dead shearwater on the sand (right)

Dead and dying shearwaters were found entangled in seaweed along the beach. Source: WIRES

More than 6,000 shearwaters were found dead in Alaska in 2019, and these deaths were linked to a lack of food due to unusually warm water. A year later, thousands of emperor penguin chicks died in Antarctica after their homes melted away ahead of schedule.

When it comes to shearwaters, there are likely several factors causing this phenomenon, including plastic ingestion. More than 90 percent of seabirds worldwide have plastic in their bodies, because they often mistake it for food. Because it contains no nutritional value, it builds up in the stomachs of birds and weakens them, and in March it was also linked to the discovery of a new disease that destroys tissue.

Where do the shearwaters fly?

After their annual migration, most shearwaters eventually make their way to islands in Bass Strait and the Victorian coastline.

Although much of their habitat has been destroyed by coastal development, thousands of vital breeding burrows remain protected. Below you can watch a video showing tens of thousands of birds returning to feed their chicks on Philip Island.

Care volunteers increased as the number of wildlife victims increased

Like the SES, emergency services and rural fire services, Australia’s wildlife response teams are also largely staffed by volunteers. They combine full-time work and family life with caring for and rescuing wildlife in need. Frustratingly, much of the problem they are responding to is caused by preventable events, such as car collisions from speeding, and government-sanctioned habitat clearing for human development, as seen in south-west Sydney and the Gold Coast .

As many of us enjoyed time with friends and family this weekend, volunteers from WIRES, Sydney Wildlife Rescue and Australian Seabird Rescue filled bin bags with dead shearwaters. It is this kind of work, along with the trauma of responding to so many deaths, that leads many volunteers to eventually give up and leave.

“I love this job, but it’s also quite depressing,” Eliana Leopold told Yahoo News Australia on Sunday evening, after another day of attending the shearwaters at Bondi.

“I was away last night but returned early due to the stress this places on the wildlife sector. It’s not like there are an abundance of volunteers to help with these types of situations. If Australia really cares about its wildlife, relying so much on volunteers is not a sustainable approach.

“Sometimes I wish I could just stop looking at animals and just go back to my happy demeanor and not have to worry. But once you see it, it’s very hard not to see it again.”

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