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What Happens to Oiled Birds When They Land in Oil? How Can We Help Them?

A clean and waterproof Common Murre.


When oil spills on the water, especially a thicker oil like crude oil or bunker fuel, it can get on the feathers of seabirds (these are birds that spend most of their time on or in the water and little time on land).  The oil coats the feathers, which then can’t interlock, and the birds are thus prevented from staying waterproof (sort of like a hole in a dry suit).  The cold water can then get to their skin and causes them to become hypothermic and come onto land to stay warmer.

The best we can do for these birds, once they get oiled, is to rescue them and bring them in for initial care. Rescuing oiled birds is challenging.  It takes training, thinking out of the box, and care.  When an oiled bird sees you approaching on the beach, their first instinct is to run for the water.  Some of these birds don’t do well on land, such as Grebes and Loons, which have their feet set way back on their body, as opposed to dabbling ducks like Mallards that have their feet in the center of their body.  Even so, it can surprise you how fast they can move towards the water.  So how do you catch an oiled bird?  Techniques vary depending on the terrain, the tides, the amount of oiling the bird has, and if they can fly.  To catch an oiled gull takes a very different strategy as they can fly (so you might try to bait them) as opposed to a Common Murre (who need a long build up on the water to take off, but can run fast towards the water).

Search & Rescue practice on the beach sneaking up on a “bird” (the person with the pink ball).

One tried and true method is to stalk them on the beach with nets.  We developed a fun exercise that helps people understand what it is like to try to catch an oiled bird. In the photo at the top of this article, you can see two people practicing sneaking up on an oiled bird (in this case there is a person hiding with a ball i.e. “the bird”, her head is to the very left side of the photo).  In the photo to the left you can see another angle of stalking the bird.  The object is for the two/three people who are looking for “the bird,” to slowly sneak up on the bird and catch the “bird/ball” before it reaches the water.  This involves coordination between the people stalking the bird, using non-verbal signs, thinking like a bird (such as if you aren’t looking at me directly, you are not as much of a threat as when you stare at me), staging yourselves with your nets so that if you flush the bird, you still have a chance to catch it.

Removing a “caught bird” (the pink ball) from a net at a Search & Rescue exercise on the beach.

There are other methods to catch birds, such as proactive capture, herding birds into a specific area, or even working to catch them from boats (you need to be skilled and experienced to catch birds from a boat).  One of the worst things you can do when you try to catch an oiled bird is to chase them.  This will only wear them out, deplete what little energy they have, and if they are scared enough they won’t come out of the water and may drown.  Sometimes you have to leave a bird and come back at a different time of day, say at a lower tide.

Once a bird is captured, it needs to be transported to an initial care center.  This could be a place that is set up in a building, or perhaps at a mobile care unit trailer (there are two trailers in Washington State).  At IOSA we have many of the initial supplies needed to set up an initial care center.  During initial care we warm them up, examine them, flush the petroleum out of their system, give them fluids, and wipe off any oil that is blocking their nostrils or is in their mouth.  Then we give them a quiet place to rest until they can be transported to the Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Unit, which will be located somewhere on the mainland.  While we did do washing, rinsing and drying of oiled birds back in 1989 at the San Juan County Fairgrounds, we only had a small number of birds (35).  The water requirements alone for washing and especially rinsing is very large, as well as it has to be held in a tank and disposed of, as well as kept at a temperature of around 102º to 106ºF.  We just do not have that capability here in the islands.


setting up pool 2
IOSA Volunteers set up salt water pools as part of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Mobile Response Unit.   IOSA has a crew of volunteers that have been setting up these units since 2011 and can be dispatched to set up the Units in the initial days of an oil spill.

There are  Wildlife Rehabilitation Mobile Response Units (for 100 birds each) that are available to be set up within 24 hours in a warehouse on the mainland.  These units have the needed electricity and water capabilities for longer term care.  These units can also be expanded on, but are a good start for taking care of oiled wildlife.  Once the Mobile Response Units are set up, oiled birds can be sent there for treatment, stabilization, and then washing/rinsing/drying.  When the birds are healthy, clean, and have spent time in salt water pools, they are released back into the wild, away from oil.   Click here for more information on these Mobile Response Units.


To be able to help oiled wildlife in an oil spill, training is needed in either Search and Rescued of Oiled Birds or Initial Care of Oiled Birds, along with additional Hazwoper Safety Training.

The Washington State Dept. of Fish and Wildlife along with the United States Coast Guard and other organizations present an Eight-hour Hazwoper Safety Class for Oiled Wildlife Responders every spring in Port Angeles and Everett (usually in February or March).  If you are interested in attending one of these training, you can sign up as a volunteer on the Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife website or at the Dept. of Ecology .  If you are on IOSA’s mailing list you will also be notified of these trainings, as well as our trainings.


Oiled Bird Initial Care Training Class


IOSA Receives Funding for New Round of Oil Spill Response Trainings in 2018/2019.

Do you love to work on the water?

Would you like to learn how to protect a shoreline from oil?

Want to help search for and do initial care of oiled birds?

Would you like to do support or help with logistics at an oil spill?

Come learn the basics of oil spill response at an Islands’ Oil Spill Association training session!  

Thanks to funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which we were recommended for by NOAA, IOSA has an ambitious list of trainings coming up between now and October of 2019.

Here is the schedule for 2018.

CANCELLED  — June 2nd, Saturday, Search & Rescue of Oiled Birds on Lopez

In this class, we will teach you how to search for and rescue oiled birds, provide initial care, practice handling live ducks, and learn of safety concerns.  We will also spend some time on the beach practicing how to do search and capture of oiled birds.


June 9th, Saturday  Oil Containment / Geographic Response Plan (GRP) Drill at Nelson Bay, Henry Island

This containment drill and boom deployment will take place on the west side of San Juan Island. The structure of the drill will include initial training/review of different techniques, assignment to boats and specific tasks, use of the incident command system, a safety briefing, and use of an oil spill scenario.  This geographic response plan strategy is SJI-23-HEN and you can find it at the Ecology website, click on San Juan Islands/North Puget Sound and go to page 4-39 .  If you have a boat you would like to use at this drill or at any other oil containment drill, please let us know.

Setting oil containment boom to divert oil away from a sensitive bay.

September 8th, Saturday  Oil Containment / Geographic Response Plan Drill on the West Side of San Juan Island

This drill will be similar to the above drill at Nelson Bay, but will be at a different place on the west side of San Juan.  There are a number of Geographic Response Plan (GRP) strategies in the area that you can check out at the above link.  See map on page 4-18 of the GRP’s.

September 21st, FRIDAY    Geographic Response Plan Drill at Prevost Harbor on Stuart Island with Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC)

This is a special drill that will be done in coordination with Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, as we may end up working with them on a spill on the west or north side of San Juan County in the future.  The strategy for this drill will be SJI-11-STU (see page 4-38 of the GRP’s, see above link).  Also note that this drill will be on a FRIDAY, not our usual Saturday.

Boom across east entrance Prevost Harbor
Oil containment harbor boom attached to east side of Prevost Harbor.

October 13th, Saturday  Search & Rescue of Oiled Wildlife on Orcas.

This class will be held on Orcas Island.  Look at above description of the training on June 2nd for more information.

Oiled Bird Search, Rescue, and Initial Care Training at Lopez Center.

November 3rd, Saturday  Hazwoper Safety Training on Lopez Island.

This will be a Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response training.  This training is necessary for anyone wishing to respond to an oil spill where you may be near oil (for wildlife and containment response).  We are updating this class and it will include an oil spill scenario.

Practice pulling someone (in this case our dummy Ray!) up onto a boat after they have fallen into the water.  (Remember, always use your knees when lifting!)

November 10th, Saturday  ­Air Monitoring / Site Safety Training

In this class you will learn how to do air monitoring at an oil spill for substances such as Hydrogen Sulfide and Benzene.  There will also be instruction in site safety.  You will need to be able to be contacted quickly in the event of an oil spill, because air monitoring must be done before we can work on the scene.  This training is focused on people who live part or full-time in the San Juan Islands.

IOSA responders on the Sea Goose read the gas meter and record their findings.

Spring of 2019, Deterring Orca from Entering Areas of Spilled Oil.

This exercise will expand on the Deterrence Exercise held in May of 2018.  We will incorporate lessons learned in the last exercise, and train new people in this hazing technique of using the oikomi pipes.   In the event of a large oil spill many of our regular responders will be working doing other tasks, so we need people who would just focus on deterring Orca from areas of oil.  If you are interested in protecting the Orca and have your own boat, please come join us next year.  You can sign up below and we will inform you of the date around the end of the year.

IOSA responder hits an oikomi pipe during an exercise to practice deterring Orca from an oil spill.  Photo by Lindy McMorran

Providing Support for an Oil Spill Response.

One of the areas of an oil spill that is very important is support and logistics.  In a larger oil spill help is needed in many of the following areas:

  • Transporting responders, equipment and oiled birds by car or boat.
  • Providing support at the Command Center, Staging Area, or Oiled Bird Initial Care Center.  This can be everything from signing people or equipment/supplies in and out, preparing snacks, lunches, beverages, being on call for first aid, filling out forms, calling responders to work the next day . . . The list goes on and on.
  • Logistics:  What equipment is needed where?  How do we get it there?  Where do we order it from?

While we don’t have any trainings set up in this area at this time, we would like to get a list of people who are interested in support functions and have a meeting sometime in the near future.  Please sign up below if you are interested in helping in a support function at an oil spill.

For more information on any of IOSA’s trainings, contact us at

Preregistration is required for all of IOSA’s trainings and drills.

**If you are interested in helping to protect the environment and animals of the Salish Sea, please sign up below.**



A beautiful Common Murre, fully waterproof!



How to Deter Orca from an Oil Spill

Islands’ Oil Spill Association held an exercise on May 12th to test a method to deter Orca from areas where there are large amounts of spilled oil.  The exercise was held in conjunction with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Washington State Department of Ecology as part of the Governor’s Executive Order to protect the Southern Resident Killer Whales.

The method used was to hang oikomi pipes (8’ long pipes made with reverberant metal) from the boats and then the pipes are struck with hammers or rebar at two second intervals.  The pipes make a discordant noise that is not harmful to the whale’s hearing.  The boats line up beam to beam, holding their positions relative to the other boats.  One of the interesting parts of the exercise was determining the best way to deploy the pipes from the boats in such a way that 80% of the pipe was underwater and people were still able to be in a comfortable position to strike the pipes for long periods of time.

IOSA volunteer demonstrates using the Oikomi pipes.

Many different types of boats were used and it was a challenge with the different size boats and varying shapes of the keels to keep the boats in as close to a line as possible.  The volunteers did a great job of figuring out the best way to hang the pipes from the boats.  The boat captains were very skillful in keeping their boats lined up.  Another strategy was tried with the boats lined up in a U shape to see if that worked better in terms of disseminating the sound outwards.  Dr. Val Viers of Orcasound Lab recorded the sounds with his hydrophone so they can be analyzed later (at IOSA’s last exercise five years ago the sound levels were from 118 to 132 decibels).

In Barnes Lake, Alaska, this method was used to move Orcas out of an inlet with a shallow entrance that the whales were reluctant to cross.  The method was successful in moving the whales back into the ocean.

Eight boats from San Juan County and one from Whatcom County participated in the exercise with 37 volunteers.  Participants came from Washington State Parks, Phillips 66, Pacific Whale Watch Operators, Whatcom County Marine Mammal Stranding Network, and all over San Juan County.  IOSA thanks everyone who gave of their time to participate in this exercise!

Don Noviello of Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife describes how to use an Oikomi Pipe to IOSA volunteers.

Please contact us if you are interested in participating in our next exercise in 2019 (date yet to be determined).  We need more people and boats participating that would not be doing oil spill containment or search and rescue of oiled wildlife in the event of a large oil spill.  If you are a boat owner or whale watch operator who would like to participate in this exercise, please fill in the below form and we will notify you when we set a date for the next exercise.

This exercise was funded by a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation 

Thanks for Your Donations During the Fair!

During the San Juan County Fair many of you donated to help us with the matching grant from San Juan Island Community Foundation.  We came close to meeting our goal, raising $3, 125 so the San Juan Island Community Foundation (SJICF) will be matching that $3,125 with a 50% matching grant.  As well SJICF held a raffle for $1000 to be donated to the organization of the winner’s choice and one of our responders won and donated the money to IOSA.  The total earned, including some outside matching corporate grants is $6,287, which is very close to what we need to buy the new trailer.

We are now on our way to getting a much-needed new spill response trailer (similar to the one on the left in the above photo).   Thanks to everyone who donated!

This new supply trailer (10′ by 6′) will be stationed at our Roche Harbor storage site, to sit beside our trailer that holds 1,100′ of containment boom.  The new trailer will store all of the supplementary equipment we need for a spill response (such as anchors, sorbents, spill bags, boom lights and more).  This will enable us to respond quicker to oil spills in the area, as all the supplies will be right there, and do not have to be moved from some other part of the island.

Several of the equipment trailers we have stationed throughout the San Juans were donated to us (or sold for a good price) over the past 20+ years and are slowly but surely needing to be replaced.  Just last week, we had to retire the very first trailer we used to carry containment boom, acquired in 1990!

If you would like to help us raise money for the next response trailer we need or for any of our other projects, see our Support IOSA page.