Scrubbed birds ready to take flight after touching down on Alberta oilsands tailings pond

A small flock of shorebirds contaminated with oil after touching down on a northern Alberta tailings pond is expected to be released back into the wild within a week.

The birds, most of which are eared grebes, are being scrubbed clean at the Edmonton-based WildNorth rehabilitation centre.

About 50 birds from the same flock died when they landed in tailings ponds at Imperial Oil’s Kearl Lake mine, about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

Thirteen birds were transferred to the wildlife rehabilitation facility on Monday. At least two more birds are expected to arrive from the oilsands later this week.

Despite their ordeal, the birds in care are surprisingly scrappy, said Kim Blomme, WildNorth’s director of wildlife services.

“We’re lucky that the migratory birds that are coming through right now are generally birds that are in very good condition, good health, good body weight,” Blomme said in an interview with CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.

“That works in our favour when they get impacted like this because they still have a lot of energy.

“They’re still trying to fight us a little bit so that’s really good.”

Shorebirds, most of which are eared grebes, are being scrubbed clean at the Edmonton-based WildNorth rehabilitation centre after landing on a northern Alberta tailings pond 1:44

Over several days since April 26, more than 100 birds per day have landed on the Kearl site tailings ponds, despite deterrents designed to keep them away from the toxic waters.

The birds are landing in an area with radar detection, noise cannons, eye-safe lasers, scarecrows and long-range acoustic devices, Imperial Oil spokesperson Jon Harding said on Tuesday.

Harding said most natural water bodies in the area are still mostly frozen as a result of the extended winter and abrupt migration.

“The landings were most likely influenced by near-freezing precipitation, which historically has resulted in migrating birds landing on such areas due to exhaustion,” he said.

A mass migration on water

The grebe, a small water-bird with distinctive ear-tufts and red eyes, is a summer resident of Alberta’s wetlands.

During migration from the south, the birds, also known as black-necked grebes, travel around 6,000 kilometres. Once the bird has arrived in Alberta, it becomes flightless for two months while it completes a moult of its winter feathers.

The birds are instinctively drawn to open water and driven to complete their journey in time for breeding season, Blomme said. Apart from migrating or nesting, it spends its entire life on the water, she said.

“This is one of the challenges. When they’re flying, they look for water to land on. They’re not the type of bird that’s going to land on the ground.

“They need to run for a short distance on the water in order to get enough momentum to get up into the air.”

When we let them go, they need to be able to be completely waterproof again. – Kim Blomme

When the birds were transferred into care, their bellies, necks and feet were covered in oil, Blomme said.

Once the oil is removed, any leftover residue from the soap needs to be carefully rinsed.

“All of these things are contaminants,” she said.  “We have to make sure that we get absolutely everything off them so that they can restore their waterproofing again by preening and getting those feathers all back in place.”

Eared grebes, summer residents of Alberta’s wetlands, travel more than 6,000 kilometres during their annual migration north. (Submitted by WildNorth)

Blomme expects the birds will be ready to be released back into the wild within a few days.

Sooner is better, she said, since the birds do not thrive in captivity.

“The longer we keep them the more likely they can develop problems just by being in captivity,” she said.

“They can develop lesions on their feet because they’re not in the water. They don’t like being handled, it’s very stressful.

“Our goal is to try to get them out in as short a period of time as we can. And at this point, we’re feeling relatively optimistic that we’ll be able to do that.”

Deadly landings

The incident recalls previous bird deaths at oilsands tailings ponds.

In January 2019, Syncrude was fined more than $2.7 million after pleading guilty to environmental charges in the deaths of 31 great blue herons at one of its oilsands mines north of Fort McMurray in 2015.

An agreed statement of facts said that Syncrude admitted that an abandoned sump pond in which the birds were found didn’t have deterrents to keep waterfowl from landing on it, even though the pond met criteria for being high risk.

Fencing and bird deterrents were installed and the ponds were brought under Syncrude’s plan to keep wildlife away from toxic materials at its mine.

In 2010, Syncrude was fined $3 million after more than 1,600 ducks died when they landed on a tailings pond in 2008.

Investigation ongoing

Imperial said it regrets the incident and continues to work with researchers and regulators to better protect birds in its tailings areas.

In a statement to CBC News, the Alberta Energy Regulator said the recent landings will be investigated, noting that the recent environmental monitoring exemptions, adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic, does not extend to deterrents.

“Bird migration takes place each spring and the AER cannot speak to the incident’s exact cause,” reads the email.

“While some low-risk monitoring requirements in the oilsands have been suspended by the AER in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, requirements related to bird deterrents near tailings ponds and incident reporting have not changed.

“Our early indication shows that Imperial has complied with all AER requirements.”

Tailings-contaminated water is stored in buckets after the birds were washed. (Submitted by WildNorth)

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