Puffin rescue program suspends summer operations as avian flu wreaks havoc on region's seabirds

A wildlife rescue program on the southern Avalon Peninsula is being put on hold as preliminary lab tests confirm cases of avian flu as being the cause for thousands of seabirds being found dead on beaches and in the water throughout the area over the last two weeks.

Puffin Patrol has rescued 4,000 juvenile birds over last decade

The Puffin Patrol program in Witless Bay, which rescues stranded juvenile puffins, has been suspended. (Submitted by Barry Langdon)

A wildlife rescue program on the southern Avalon Peninsula is being put on hold after preliminary tests on dead seabirds found washed up and in the water by the thousands in the area over the past two weeks have found avian flu.

The Puffin Patrol program has helped save about 4,000 juvenile puffins — called "pufflings" — that become stranded on beaches in the Witless Bay area after being attracted by artificial lighting on land. 

The program is run by Canadian Wildlife Services and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Newfoundland and Labrador with the help of local and tourist volunteers over the last decade. Birds that are rescued are assessed and banded by wildlife services and released back to sea.

But because avian flu has been found in the area's bird colonies, potentially exposing volunteers and staff to the virus is a risk the organizations aren't willing to take. 

"For the safety of patrollers and residents of the Witless Bay region, we decided to temporarily suspend the Puffin Patrol for this summer until this comes down or are eradicated," said the parks society's provincial director, Suzanne Dooley, said Monday. 

"I've seen one puffin [dead] myself and then there's been a few cases of other species being found throughout the south coast and the Southern Shore." 

Murres, gannets and other marine birds have been washing up along the southern Burin Peninsula and across Placentia Bay to Cape St. Mary's, where an ecological reserve is home to about 100,000 birds. 

Joe O'Brien, co-owner of O'Brien's Whale and Bird Tours in Bay Bulls, a neighbouring community north of Witless Bay, said he and his boat captains have seen many dead seabirds this summer, including more puffins lately.

O'Brien's boat tours co-owner Joe O'Brien says he and his boat captains are noticing more puffins among dead birds found floating in the water. (CBC)

He said the numbers lately include more puffins.

"Every other trip we're starting to see the number multiply. It's starting to become a concern," O'Brien said Monday. 

"Eagles are going to become affected as well, so it's of grave concern and I'm asking all the boat operators to write down in their log, as much as they can, all the birds they see resting on the water."

Biologists are also asking residents to report any sightings of dead birds and not to handle their carcasses. 

CPAWS-N.L. is also asking the public not to capture or handle stranded puffins and to report all sightings through the Puffin Patrol's Facebook page. A trained team will respond to as many sightings as possible, Dooley said.

Dooley said the society will assess the situation every week and update the public if the situation changes.

"This is evolving," Dooley said. "We're just hoping Mother Nature works itself out and this will resume. If not, we will take this up again next year."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from On The Go and CrossTalk