A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that a goose found in Ocean Shores was the first to test positive in Grays Harbor County, but has been corrected.
The evening of Nov. 9, just before dark, Vivian Dahlin drove her Jeep onto the beach at Chance a La Mer in Ocean Shores. As her tires pushed through the tire-tracked sand, she scanned the beach and noticed a gray lump lying motionless in the roadway. As she got closer, she realized it was a bird.
“I drove up to it, and I sat and watched it,” said Dahlin, who regularly volunteers rescuing birds for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “I sort of talked to it. It didn’t move. I drove around it a couple of times, and it didn’t move. That’s not normal.”
Despite its behavior, the bird was “quite alive,” Dahlin said. The bird — which to Dahlin looked like a small goose — sat upright, nodding its head off to one side. It didn’t flee when Dahlin nudged it with her dog-ball launcher.
After scooping it into a carrier, Dahlin took the bird to the Twin Harbors Wildlife Center in Montesano.
The bird, a Cackling Goose, died soon after.
And a few days later, to no shock of Dr. Sonnya Wilkins, a wildlife veterinarian and co-founder of the center, a seperate goose found in Montesano became the first positive test of highly pathogenic avian influenza in Grays Harbor County.
“We’ve been kind of expecting it all along, and I think we were kind of surprised it took as long as it did for us to see it,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins’ surprise is because of the significance of the outbreak on a global, national and statewide scale. Since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Agriculture first reported detections of avian influenza in January, over 52 million cases in both wild and domestic birds across 47 states have been reported as of Nov. 30, surpassing the previous national record set in 2015.
In wild birds, avian influenza has been detected in 22 counties in Washington. While it can pose imminent economic threats to poultry farms, this year’s outbreak has been particularly harsh on wild birds.
The virus typically dies off during the warm summer months, but this year’s fall-season surge of cases could mean a different — and, perhaps, more permanent — course for the virus, at least in wild birds, according to Dr. Katie Haman, a wildlife veterinarian with the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“This ongoing outbreak, I think is really significant that it hasn’t been stamped out, that it hasn’t petered out,” Haman said. “It came back with a vengeance.”
Highly-pathogenic avian influenza, also known as HPAI, was first found in the United States in 2014 in falcons and ducks in Whatcom County, Washington. The following year, the virus killed roughly 50 million birds nationwide, but wasn’t detected again in the Pacific Flyway — a bird migration route that stretches from Mexico to Alaska — until this year.
Other flyway states, including Oregon, Alaska and California, have been hit especially hard.
The current avian influenza strain is an H5N1, and arrived from Europe, Haman said.
There are many different strains of avian influenza. Haman said the distinction between the highly pathogenic version and the low pathogenic version of the disease, for birds, is the difference between life and death.
From 2005 to 2011, Fish and Wildlife tested over 10,000 wild birds, and roughly 10% of them were positive for low-path bird flu. But none of these birds showed signs of illness or mortality, according to a Fish and Wildlife website.
“It’s not uncommon, if we were going to screen a whole bunch of geese last year, before this high-path AI outbreak, that we would find a variety of different low-path avian influenza viruses in those waterfowl,” Haman said.
That’s where this year differs: The highly-pathogenic version virus has flared up — and stuck around — in wild birds, while recently, at least in Washington, cases in domestic birds have been relatively quiet. According to the most recent data from the Washington Department of Agriculture, the last case appeared in Snohomish County on Nov. 4.
Domestic flocks can contract the flu by sharing water sources with infected wild birds.
“I think it’s pretty interesting that we’re seeing significant mortality in our waterfowl, but the last domestic detection was earlier this month,” Haman said.
Haman said that could mean a “potentially emerging disease in wild birds.” And waterfowl are the main reservoirs of the virus.
Kyle Spragens, a waterfowl expert with Fish and Wildlife, said a number of timely factors are likely contributing to the latest jump in mortality among wild birds, particularly in geese.
Spragens said fall migration has, for the most part, already occurred, and geese have reached their winter resting places. Cackling geese, like the one Dahlin found on the beach, usually winter at lower latitudes than the larger Canada geese.
While migrations probably played a role in spreading avian influenza across the continent, a combination of other factors, including drought and cold temperatures, might be greater influencers of mortality, Spragens said.
Drought has made for limited water on the landscape and pushed geese — which already roost in close concentrations at night — to share fewer ponds and wetlands. Haman said avian flu spreads through fecal matter and can live in cold water for up to several weeks.
At the same time, Spragens said, cold temperatures in Alaska and Canada have forced a larger number of geese south at a time when competition for food and habitat is the fiercest.
Although this year’s avian influenza mortality rate is higher in waterfowl than usual, geese are massively abundant in Washington state, and the disease doesn’t pose a threat to the overall balance of their population.
Since Dahlin brought in the first goose from Ocean Shores, eight other geese from Grays Harbor, according to Dr. Wilkins, have shown “clear-cut” symptoms of avian influenza: runny nose, fever, watery eyes, and neurological signs such as staggered walking or flying in circles.
However, only Dahlin’s goose has been officially tested. Because of the extent of the outbreak, and the high costs of tests at $120 each, state resources for testing have dried up. Haman said the state now only tests birds in areas where the virus was previously undetected, such as Grays Harbor. The state is using what’s called “symptomatic surveillance” to get an estimate of overall impacts.
The state will continue to test species of conservation concern, like less-abundant birds of prey. Wilkins said the wildlife center dealt with a peregrine falcon from Thurston County that eventually tested positive at the state lab.
Birds of prey can contract the virus by feeding on waterfowl carrying the disease. Haman said this year’s outbreak could pose a larger threat to flesh-eating birds than to waterfowl.
“We don’t know what that impact is going to be, but I can tell you we’re seeing a lot of sick and dead raptors and scavengers,” Haman said. “I would be shocked if there’s not a significant impact on the population.”
Fish and Wildlife biologist Scott Harris has trapped a red-tailed hawk and a bald eagle in the county that were displaying neurological signs of the disease. According to Wilkins, the bald eagle tested positive while tests from the red-tailed hawk are still pending.
In addition, shorebirds could be a future species of focus, Haman said. The disease has been detected in plovers, American Coots and Bufflehead Ducks.
“Especially if there are geese and waterfowl in the area, the potential for exposure is pretty great,” Haman said.
Haman said the state is relying on citizens and local biologists — people like Dahlin and Harris — to identify sick birds. That makes it hard to pinpoint exact impacts on bird populations, especially since many birds die in places where people don’t usually go.
“Getting an idea of how many wild birds are dying from this is pretty dang hard,” Haman said. “We’re probably only seeing a fraction of what’s actually out there.”
The virus is unlikely to infect humans. While the virus can spread from birds to people, only one human case has been reported in the U.S., according to the CDC.
Still, Haman advised against handling apparently sick or dead birds. If people do handle sick birds, they should wear the proper safety equipment: gloves, a mask and glasses.
Report suspected cases of bird flu at https://survey123.arcgis.com/share/a384e90f69744f2e846135a9ce80027f.
Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or firstname.lastname@example.org.