Syncrude blue heron deaths: A look at 'the royalty of our wetlands'

The author of Birds of Alberta on the recent deaths of great blue herons at Syncrude's Mildred Lake facility and how they fit into the provincial ecosystem.

Birds of Alberta author Chris Fisher says Syncrude needs to update its deterrents to prevent more bird deaths

A great blue heron searches for prey in June 2015 along floodwaters of the Mississippi River north of Scott City, Missouri. (Fred Lynch\Southeast Missourian via AP)

An Alberta bird expert says the loss of any great blue heron is tragic.

Chris Fisher, a wildlife biologist and author of the bestselling book Birds of Alberta, calls the metre-tall birds "the royalty of our wetlands."

An estimated 30 blue herons died recently at Syncrude's Mildred Lake facility north of Fort McMurray. Alberta's Energy Regulator is investigating the cause, and ordered an environmental protection order.

The company will be required to collect water and soil samples for analysis and develop a wildlife mitigation plan to keep other animals away from where the birds were found. 

Syncrude said Tuesday it is complying with the order and also conducting its own investigation.

But Fisher says Syncrude needs to update its technology.

"Most of the deterrents we've seen up there are cannons, propane cannons that fire off every couple of minutes or so, or fake falcons that screech, or scare crows, but to my eyes that represents an old school technology," he said.

"I would argue they've not yet embraced the next generation of deterrents."

Fisher says there are pilot projects that involve radar or HD cameras, and thermal cameras that have digital algorithms that can actually detect birds coming into an area — maybe not small ones, but big ones like the great blue heron.

Blue heron background

The species is considered sensitive, which means it's not at risk of becoming extinct soon, "however all our wetland species have some risk to them because Alberta's wetlands have been diminished so significantly over the last 100 years or so," he said.

There may be as few as 100 known colonies of these birds in the province, with about 30 or so great blue herons per colony, he says. 

"Thirty great blue herons, that's a large number, and represents a pretty significant portion of the birds we have in the province — such a beautiful majestic bird as well," he said. 

"It's sad when these things happen."

As the investigation continues, Fisher, who hasn't been on site to see the birds, said the herons could have died from a series of causes, from consuming contaminated food such as frogs, minnows or other fish in the shallow waters. But it's more likely they succumbed to oily residue on their plummage, he says.

"So any sort of oil that gets into their plumage can mat up. It will mean that they can't fly, (the bird) loses the ability to be insulative," he said.

"So any sort of hydro carbons that get in contact with a bird's feathers is bad news indeed."

Contamination will be among the AER investigation as well. The energy regulator is investigating whether the bitumen was naturally occurring or a result of the plant's operations.