Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
TOGIAK:Unusual Bird Findings at Ualik Lake
Alaska Region, April 25, 2012
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Ualik Lake (indicated by arrow) is located in the southeast corner of Togiak Refuge.
Ualik Lake (indicated by arrow) is located in the southeast corner of Togiak Refuge. - Photo Credit: USFWS- Togiak Refuge

During the fall of 2011, Togiak Refuge experienced an unusual happening involving gulls at a refuge lake. On September 27th, refuge law enforcement officer Allen Miller and pilot Mike Hink contacted 2 bear hunters on the shores of Ualik Lake, a large oval shaped lake near the southeast corner of the refuge. While visiting with them, the hunters reported to Miller that they had seen what they described as several hundred dead and dying gulls along the shorelines and on some islands of the lake. The hunters further stated that they had worked in the area as guides for ten years and had never seen more than an occasional dead gull. According to the hunters, gulls that seemed to be healthy at the outset of their hunt soon became ill and many died. They also reported that many of the sick birds would limp and hold up one leg in an unnatural position.


The next day, Hink and staff biologist Stacey Lowe were able to fly in to the location and retrieve 3 dead Glaucous-winged Gulls from a large island. Most of the carcasses had been heavily scavenged. They selected the three birds that appeared to still be in the best condition.

Refuge staff made a return trip to the area a week later and found an estimated 500 live gulls, feeding on dead or dying salmon. A check of the surrounding area seemed to indicate that the event was confined to Ualik Lake. It was estimated that around 60% of those affected were juvenile birds. They flew the entire 20 mile shoreline of the lake; approximately 50 dead gulls were spotted and most were well scavenged. During follow-up surveys, two additional carcasses were collected- both juvenile Glaucous-winged gulls that appeared to be emaciated.

All five carcasses collected were submitted to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, WI for testing. Diagnostic evaluations were performed on four of the five birds; one gull was deemed to be in poor post-mortem condition and was saved frozen. Those evaluations included a necropsy examination, as well as virology, bacteriology and parasitology testing.

All four of the gulls examined were young-of-the-year that were emaciated and infested with common intestinal parasites, including trematodes, nematodes, and cestodes. No significant pathogenic bacteria were discovered in any of the gulls examined, and tests for avian flu viruses and botulisms type C and E were negative.

However, this case did have what wildlife disease specialist Barb Bodenstein called “unusual findings.” One gull was found to be infected with two different viruses: circovirus and a herpes virus. The circovirus was a surprise. While circoviruses have been found in various gull species across our continent, not much is known about either cause or transmission. Circovirus, which does not affect humans, is sometimes referred to as an ‘avian AIDs virus’ because it attacks the bird’s immune system and leaves it susceptible to other disease agents. This is especially true in juvenile birds and during normal stressors such as molting or migration.

Refuge staff will continue to monitor Ualik Lake and the surrounding area during breeding season and the spring/fall migrations. Fresh carcasses will be submitted to the National Wildlife Health Center, should anything further be discovered.

For more information, contact biologist Michael Swaim (michael_swaim@fws.gov or 907-842-8414)

Contact Info: Terry Fuller, 907-842-1063 ext. 8419, terry_fuller@fws.gov
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