The odor hit us as we rode a Zodiac inflatable raft to Little Galloo Island's beach, near the northeastern shore of Lake Ontario. It was the smell of death.
Not overpowering, but a lingering stench that became more noticeable the longer we stood on the rocky coast. There were bird carcasses every few feet, on the shore and along the waters edge and inland, on open ground or hidden by the low green plant life; hundreds of dead or dying ring-billed gulls, black cormorants, herring gulls, and caspian terns. Wildlife biologists fear that all of them are in danger of dying out, since Little Galloo is their nesting place, and the waterfowls' numbers are dwindling fast.
There were thousands of live birds too, cawing and calling and circling overhead, some even swooping down at our crew. Researchers are here to document their deaths and search for possible solutions. One of the birds left a gift on my shoulder.
More heartbreaking than the dead gulls at our feet surrounded by swarms of gnats and flies were the ones that lay in various states of paralysis, some flapping their wings in a failed effort to fly, others barely able to move their heads as we creeped in for a closer look.
A team of New York State wildlife biologists and researchers are monitoring the birds and rescuing a handful in weekly visits. The sick birds are force-fed Gatorade (lemon-lime flavor is preferred by the biologists but not necessarily by the birds) with a tube down their throat, helping to flush their system and give them strength. They're nursed back to health in a lab and then set free again, but the biologists admit the birds are likely to return to the island where they could easily get sick again.
The cause of the trouble is Type E Avian Botulism, a deadly toxin found in the sediment on the bottom of the lake . It's believed that the fish, zebra mussels and round gobies, both an invasive species, trigger and worsen the outbreaks in certain conditions. The fish are then eaten by the birds. Locals and tourists are being encouraged to steer clear of sick and dying fish and birds, although swimming, hunting and fishing is still getting a thumbs up from the state.
Humans are susceptible to Botulism, but exposure is uncommon. The toxin is most often found in the guts of fish and birds, so if you're not eating the stomach or its contents, you're probably OK. Still, there's reason to be cautious. Sport fish like salmon are safe to eat, but should be kept on ice and then cooked well, and people should wear rubber gloves while cleaning their catch. If dead birds are found on the beach, people are being encouraged to bag them and dispose of them, also while wearing rubber gloves.
The state workers we met say they're saddened and seem determined to do what they can to reverse the trend. Mother Nature will have to do the rest.
Rick Leventhal has been a New York-based correspondent with the FOX News Channel since June 1997. You can read his bio here.