Storm causes massive arrival of auks to the Catalan coast

by Lorraine Williamson

PROVINCE OF BARCELONA – Gray auks are cousins ​​of penguins and typical of the Atlantic Ocean. Nevertheless, about 500 of these seabirds are now found on the Catalan coast. Ornithologists suspect that strong hurricane wind currents may have disoriented the auks. 

Since the Catalan Institute of Ornithology reported about the event this weekend, the special presence of these seabirds has attracted many people to the ports. The Catalan government is investigating whether the auks are carriers of bird flu. According to experts, they arrived “very weak” and in “very deteriorated condition”. Environmental agents are now collecting the dead and sick specimens and taking them to the Wild Fauna recovery centre in Barcelona. They have recorded 485 living auks and 24 dead ones. The Ministry of Climate Action of the Generalitat has so far not detected any auks with bird flu. The specimens analyzed died of “extreme weakness” and had also lost muscle mass. 

Birds similar to puffins 

Auks are seabirds that are similar in size to pigeons and resemble cute puffins in appearance. They breed on the cliffs of the North Atlantic coast, from French Brittany to Iceland. “They are relatives of penguins and they also dive into the water to fish. In the 1990s it was a common wintering species in the Mediterranean Sea. In recent years, however, it has become a vulnerable species that is threatened with global extinction. The main population of the species is in Iceland. 

This massive arrival, mainly to the Catalan coast, has surprised ornithologists: “In recent years, we hardly see auks here. Suddenly, a few days ago, a hundred were seen near Malgrat flying towards France. Again a few days later, these birds appeared in Catalonia,” says an ornithologist consulted by the newspaper Nius. 

“The auk does not cross the mainland of its own free will, they fly along the coast and always cross the Strait of Gibraltar. We don’t know why there is such a large population on the Catalan coast. In addition, no specimens have been left along the coasts of Andalucia or Valencia. We also see that many do not dive to fish for food,” he adds. 

Birds went off course due to meteorological phenomena 

The first official hypotheses are that the birds “went off course due to strong hurricane wind currents” that started off the coast of Portugal and “crossed the peninsula,” environmental police officers explain. The birds have arrived “very tired” and barely have the strength left to search for food. 

Fear of insufficient food along the Catalan coast 

Ornithologists are now concerned about their food. Because the water temperature of the Mediterranean Sea was 6 degrees above normal, it is not yet known what consequences this will have for the small fish that are on the menu of the auks. Experts still have no idea if the birds will spend the winter on the Catalan coast and when they will resume their course to the Atlantic Ocean. 

“I’ve never seen them here” 

Paco Torres, an avid bird watcher, goes out every day in search of auks. “I’d never seen them here before, but I’ve shot almost 20 since Saturday,” he explains in Nius Diario. He photographed the auks in the harbours of Arenys de Mar, Premià de Mar and Parc Fòrum. The specimens that he swam with the naked eye in the fishing ports were looking for discarded food. 

Other stray species 

Recent storms have dragged other marine species from the Atlantic Ocean to lands, such as the kittiwake found in reservoirs in inland Catalonia or a cardinal phalarope in Lleida. 

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