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Bering Sea storm freezes wings of some sea birds, bald eagles

Alex DeMarban
Photo courtesy Reid Brewer

Fans of the hit cable television show "Deadliest Catch" surely know the dangers posed by freezing sea spray as it crusts over crab boats.

But they might not know that birds in Western Alaska fishing ports face the same problem. That's apparently what happened on Tuesday, when a Dutch Harbor storm spat so much sleet that ice-glazed seabirds couldn't take off and bald eagles cracked as they spread their wings for a frigid, labored flight, according to a report from a local agent with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Marine Advisory Program and radio station KUCB.

The professor, Reid Brewer, awoke early Tuesday morning to discover the storm caked the Aleutian Island city in ice. To get into his car, he cracked off the wintry varnish with a sledgehammer. "Cars were frozen like ice cubes," he said.

Later, a city worker picked up a crested auklet he'd found along the roadside in hilly terrain, an odd place for a seabird. They're often on the water or in flight, not standing around, and they usually don't let humans get close.

But the man set the auklet in a box and the bird defrosted as he drove it to Brewer. Brewer was set to release the bird into the bay -- he'd sought advice from the International Bird Rescue in Anchorage and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game -- when he noticed a couple of murres marooned on shore with icy wings.

Later, he noticed bald eagles with frost-covered wings and matted heads having difficulty flying.

"It limited their flight to 10 meters (about 33 feet)," he said. "It looked they were weighed down."

Freezing rain is part of life on the island wedged between the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean, where sea-brewed tempests whip down mountains and winter temperatures seesaw above freezing.

Brewer worried the seabirds may have been iced-over too long, leaving them unprotected by the oil-secreting glands that typically keep them dry and warm.

But once released in the bay, the birds shot away and disappeared beneath the surface, where they'll hopefully be when the next storm strikes.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com