I was pretty excited to see the foggy, stormy beach as soon as we got to Cannon Beach on our Oregon trip, but one of the first things I noticed was a dead seabird half-buried in the sand. I took some pictures of it and then kept walking… and then kept seeing the same type of bird dead every few feet. This was not my typical walk on the beach keeping an eye out for dead things. In some spots it felt like there were piles of birds. It was a fascinating sight but also very sad, and I kept wondering why no one else seemed to be noticing and why I hadn’t heard anything about this mass seabird die-off. I searched on my phone for some information and turned up nothing. It was really strange.

When I got home to Kansas, though, I looked it up again and there were a few articles published about the birds, called Cassin’s auklets. Turns out they had just started washing up on the coast in droves the weekend before we were there. As of January 6, “preliminary estimates suggest that tens of thousands of these birds are washing ashore, at the rate of 10–100 times ‘normal.'” And although postmortem exams conducted on a majority of the dead birds indicated emaciation and starvation as the cause of death, the exact cause is unknown (from January 5).

A few weeks after learning that, I read a January 23 article published by National Geographic that really helped me grasp what we’d seen on the beach that day. Some quotes from the article:

“This is just massive, massive, unprecedented,” said Julia Parrish, a University of Washington seabird ecologist who oversees the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), a program that has tracked West Coast seabird deaths for almost 20 years. “We may be talking about 50,000 to 100,000 deaths. So far.”

By comparison, not one of the five largest U.S. bird mortality events tracked by USGS since 1980 is estimated to have topped 11,000 deaths. In Europe, according to the U.K.-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the worst die-off on record occurred in 1983, when 57,000 guillemots, razorbills, puffins, and other seabirds perished in the North Sea and washed up on the British coast.

On some beaches the Cassin’s auklet death toll was a hundred times greater than any bird die-off ever tallied there, and six times worse per kilometer than the body count recorded after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska.

The auklets’ bright blue feet are so stunning (I read “fresh specimens show blue-ish feet (3 webbed toes, no hind toe)”) and the positions they’re in are heartbreaking, sprawled out or in little lumps in the sand. A really poignant sight.