Dead Birds, Tasmanian muttonbirds now: Anyone who see sick or injured wildlife is advised to call the department on RACV Wildlife Connect

Increasing frequency: Hundreds of Tasmanian mutton birds, also known as short-tailed shearwaters, have been found in dead on Port Phillip bay beaches.Increasing frequency: Hundreds of Tasmanian muttonbirds, also known as  short-tailed shearwaters, have been found in dead on Port Phillip bay beaches.  Photo: Jason South

Muttonbirds are dying in their thousands nearly every year and much more  frequently than ever before, washing up on the coast from Coffs Harbour to  Tasmania.

On South Melbourne and Port Melbourne beaches on Wednesday beach cleaning  contractor David Martinez picked up more than 150 short-tailed shearwater birds,  a species of muttonbird. One day last week, he picked up a similar number.

At Lord Howe Island this month, 200 shearwater birds washed up for the first  time in many years, Monash University seabird biologist  Jennifer Lavers said.  These deaths en masse, known as “wrecks”, have been reported along the coast  from Coffs Harbour to Tasmania, she said.

The short-tailed shearwater birds migrate 10,000 kilometres from the Bering  Sea, between Alaska and Japan, to Australian shores in late September to nest.  Dr Lavers said they have eaten little on their journey and are exhausted by the  flight.

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She said it was normal for wrecks to occur every 10 years, and this usually  indicated a particularly “poor year” for the birds with storms or no fish  available on arrival. However, major wrecks had occurred every second year since  2007, pointing to a wider problem, she said.

“We need to start asking the question of what is going on in the marine  environment,” Dr Lavers said.

“This isn’t just a hiccough. This isn’t just a freak event. It is not just  that the fish have decided to relocate themselves for one or two years or three  years. This is obviously an indication of a much wider problem.”

Dr Lavers said the birds started washing up on the beach in late September.  By this time, the female birds are often carrying their only egg for the year  and journey to sea to hunt for food with breeding males. Dr Lavers hypothesised  that they may have failed to find fish and this may have contributed to the  deaths.

“You don’t want to lose your adult breeders. It spells trouble for species,”  she said.

Department of Environment and Primary Industries senior biodiversity officer  Mandy Watson said in a statement that the feed available in the northern summer  could affect the birds’ journey as well as storms.

“Stormy weather and strong winds make it difficult for birds if they are  already in poor condition from the long migration and this can be enough to  cause their death,” Ms Watson said.

“It is common for large numbers of short-tailed shearwaters not to make  it.”

Dr Lavers agreed that weather could play a role.

“Heavy winds will do great things to them, but is it just the wind? I would  say no,” she said.

Weather bureau forecaster Andrea Peace confirmed that Melbourne Airport wind  records since 1971 show October had been the equal windiest month on record,  based on average winds. The average wind speed was 23 km/h for the month.

Dr Lavers said there were many bird rescue groups in Melbourne and advised  untrained beachgoers not to touch them. She said that even after a long journey  they were often “feisty” and could leave bloody gashes on hands and arms.

Ms Watson said all native wildlife was protected in Victoria. “Because of the  risk of being bitten or any disease the birds may carry unqualified people  should avoid handling the birds if possible,” she said.

Anyone who sees sick or injured wildlife is advised to call the  department on 136 138 or RACV Wildlife Connect on 13 1111.

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