Through his binoculars, Lewnanny Richardson scans Factorie Beach in Bastien in the Acadian Peninsula of New Brunswick.
The Nature NB biologist spots what he’s looking for a few hundred meters down from shore and adds one more to his total: 350 dead birds since May 25.
“I’ve been with Nature NB for 22 years,” said Richardson. “I have never seen that.”
It’s part of a string of dead bird finds along the shoreline, from the northeast city of Bathurst, south to Port Elgin, near Nova Scotia. No precise figures are available, although around 1,000 individuals of the same species have been found in recent weeks.
WATCH | Biologist worried as hundreds of dead birds wash ashore:
Similar discoveries have been made around the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the coasts of Quebec, Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton and western Newfoundland.
Avian flu, or H5N1, is the suspected culprit in New Brunswick. The viral infection also known as bird flu spreads easily among birds and affects both wild and domesticated species. The virus spreads through the secretions and droppings of birds.
Richardson travels the coast of the Acadian Peninsula as part of a piping plover survey and normally counts 20 dead birds per summer.
On May 25, Richardson and his summer students counted three. Then more. Early on, he recorded things like everyone’s GPS coordinates. Now he takes a picture, some basic notes, and keeps counting.
Most of the birds are gannets, which are not normally found in New Brunswick. It was the species that Richardson spotted washed up on the beach within minutes of his colleagues walking on the same shore.
“That gannet just died a few minutes ago,” Richardson said after getting closer. “He was washed [up] by the sea, so you can see it’s super fresh.”
“We are witnessing a large-scale mortality event for gannets in the Gulf of St. Lawrence,” said Becky Whittam, wildlife and habitat section manager at Environment and Climate Change Canada, in a meeting.
Whittam said about 1,000 gannets have been found dead on New Brunswick’s east coast. There have been “thousands” reported in the Gulf region.
“Everyone is completely overwhelmed right now just by tracking these large-scale mortalities,” Megan Jones said.
Jones is the Atlantic Regional Director for the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative and Assistant Professor at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island.
Jones participated in necropsies or examinations and tested a small number of New Brunswick birds.
Jones said changes in the brain, liver, lungs and other organs of gannets are consistent with bird flu. Almost all are preliminary positive results through PCR testing, the same type of test used for COVID-19.
Samples are sent to a lab in Winnipeg for confirmation.
Northern gannets found dead in Quebec and Prince Edward Island have been confirmed to have highly pathogenic avian flu, Whittam said.
Kaitlyn Lemay was on a lunch break Tuesday at the Saint-Édouard-de-Kent wharf when she saw employees from the Department of Natural Resources using all-terrain vehicles on the beach.
Curious, she approached and asked what had happened. Lemay says he was told they picked up about 200 dead birds from an area about 100 kilometers south of where Richardson was counting the dead birds.
Lemay said he was told the birds were gannets, cormorants and other seabirds.
She saw a trailer loaded with black garbage bags which she said were full of dead birds.
“I’ve never seen so many dead birds on the beach,” Lemay said in an interview.
The provincial Department of Natural Resources referred a request for an interview to the federal government.
A few miles along the coast from the wharf are the scenic Bouctouche dunes and boardwalk.
Joanne Jaillet works at the Irving Eco-Centre where 50 to 60 dead birds, mostly gannets, have been found for about a week on the beach where they take guided tours with school children.
“I’ve worked here for 24 years, and this is the first time for us that so many birds have been picked up on the beach,” Jaillet said.
Back in the Acadian Peninsula, a staff member from the Department of Natural Resources was using an all-terrain vehicle to drive down the beach and pick up the dead birds on Thursday, placing them in black garbage bags.
The bags were stacked in the back of a van. Bags full of dead birds were beginning to fill a dumpster outside the MNR office in nearby Tracadie.
Richardson said the birds will be buried in a landfill to reduce the risk of infecting other animals.
Richardson said seeing species he has worked with for two decades die in front of him is disturbing.
“Yesterday I was telling one of my staff that I would like to hug him and say, ‘It’s okay, you can die. Don’t be afraid.’
Jones said the number of deaths is extremely unusual for the region.
“We’ve never had an outbreak like this. We’ve never had an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza in Atlantic Canada, anyway. But certainly, we’ve never seen one at this ladder.”
The dead gannets are thought to come from a nesting colony on Bonaventure Island off the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec.
It is one of six northern gannet colonies in Atlantic Canada and Quebec. There are no colonies in New Brunswick. The birds, which are not considered threatened, fly off the island and feed at sea before returning to feed their young.
Whittam said there are about 200,000 breeding gannets in Canada.
“They can handle some of that mortality and bounce back for years to come,” Whittam said. “But we are keeping a close eye on the situation.”
Another large colony is just off the Magdalen Islands, which Jones says is the suspected source of gannets landing in Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton.
Jones said the virus, or a virus similar to it, has been circulating in Europe for a few years and appeared in Newfoundland before Christmas. Since then, it has spread throughout the Maritimes, Canada and most of the United States.
Jones and Whittam said a large number of scientists and officials in Canada are involved in tracking and trying to understand the bird deaths.
“We’re just looking to characterize exactly what the virus is doing to all these animals,” Jones said.
“There are also people watching what’s happening on the bird colonies that come out in the field to try to quantify this thing.”
Bird flu has raised alarm about potential damage to poultry production. Highly pathogenic avian influenza was discovered this spring in a small flock of chickens about 20 kilometers south of Moncton.
A control zone that prohibited live birds, bird products or by-products from being moved into or out of the area was lifted this week.
Jones said they started seeing foxes testing positive in Prince Edward Island, believed to be the result of eating sick birds. The risk to humans is considered low.
Those interviewed all warned anyone who found a sick or dead wild bird not to touch it.
Nick Brown, spokesman for the New Brunswick government, said in an email that the province will respond to calls about dead birds on a case-by-case basis.
Jones said anyone walking dogs should take care to keep them away from sick or dead birds.
The province said the birds should be reported to the Department of Natural Resources at 1-833-301-0334.