Damian Dovarganes  /  AP
A dead adult bird lies next to dozens of dead chicks as members of the International Bird Rescue Research Center gather them up after they washed ashore Wednesday in Long Beach, Calif.
updated 6/29/2006 8:51:36 AM ET 2006-06-29T12:51:36

Bird rescuers are trying to figure out what caused dozens of dead and sickly baby terns to wash up suddenly on the beaches here.

Rescuers with the International Bird Rescue Research Center in San Pedro collected the bodies of about 200 Caspian and elegant terns — all of them babies — after getting calls from lifeguards at the beach near Los Angeles earlier Wednesday, said Christina Verduzco, a wildlife rehabilitator.

The birds were all about a month old and many hadn't even grown feathers yet, she said. The team also found 10 living terns, she said.

Verduzco said rescuers discovered an abandoned barge Wednesday about 2 miles off the coast that was home to hundreds of tern nests. She said they now believe something — a loud noise or the intense heat — scared the chicks out of their nests and into the water, where they couldn't swim.

"That is the closest source that we know of. We don't know what made them jump the barge, but more than likely that's where they came from," she said. "They don't even have their flight feathers in, they're all shaft, so there's no way these could survive in the water."

Researchers will take the bodies back to San Pedro for toxicology tests, they said. They will also work with the U.S. Coast Guard to visit the abandoned barge to try to determine what caused the die-off.

Terns are delicate, whitish birds with black marking on their heads and grayish markings on the wings. They can often be seen skimming along the ocean close to shore as they dive for fish.

Erin Kellogg, an assistant manager with the rehabilitation center, said the surviving terns were about one month old and appeared "chunky" and well-nourished.

The problem with the terns comes just days after an unusual number of starving and weak baby pelicans showed up on area beaches in Northern California.

Officials with the state Department of Fish and Game said the problems with the pelicans could be the result of a successful breeding year. Baby pelicans, they surmised, were struggling to find enough food because of increased competition from older birds.

Other sick pelicans were found in Orange County last week and had possibly been poisoned by domoic acid, which has been found in the ocean in the area. Birds can become poisoned by eating algae tainted by the acid.

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