- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 21, 2006

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The search for the first wild bird carrying a deadly flu virus to North America is under way on a lonely stretch of coastal salt marsh on the outskirts of Alaska’s largest city.

Biologists are ankle-deep in mud and yellowed marsh grass, trying to net and test two types of shorebirds. Both are known to visit regions where flocks have caught the dangerous H5N1 virus that has spread across Asia and even into Europe and Africa.

“Birds up here are going to be interacting with birds that are going to be moving back in the United States. This is kind of Grand Central Station,” said Paul Slota of the U.S. Geological Survey, who will be overseeing the testing of samples back at the USGS wildlife lab in Madison, Wis.

The focus now is on long-billed dowitchers and pectoral sandpipers, just two of the 28 bird species that come to the great avian mixing zone that is Alaska. If bird flu can be carried long distance by wild birds, specialists expect to see it first here, before the fall migration through other states. The big fear is that this virus, which has killed or led to the slaughter of millions of chickens and ducks in Asia, will mutate into a form that humans can spread among themselves — a development that could cause a major epidemic.

But for now the mission at hand is swabbing dowitchers and sandpipersfor fecal samples that will be tested for bird flu. The project is so massive that Alaska biologists have faced a swab shortage. Nationwide, the goal is to sample 75,000 to 100,000 wild birds.

The long-billed dowitcher is a 10-inch gray shorebird with long legs. It breeds in high-latitude coastal wetlands in Alaska, Canada and the Russian Far East. Those that breed in Russia range near H5N1 outbreak areas in Asia and mix with birds that could be infected. Then they pass through Alaska in spring and fall.

Biologist Dan Ruthrauff ducks down behind a weathered log, waiting for his prey to fly into an 8-foot-tall, 45-foot-wide fine-mesh mist net. Over the course of the day, the net captures more than 20 sandpipers in several varieties.

Mr. Ruthrauff quickly extracts the birds, puts them into cloth bags and takes them to a table where USGS biologist Bob Gill and others use digital calipers to measure beaks, wings and legs. Handling one, Mr. Gill says the bird may have flown all the way from Chile.

“It probably started a month ago and could go as far as the Taimyr Peninsula” in northernmost Siberia.

Mr. Gill heads up the survey for shorebirds. Other Alaska biologists at more than 40 remote sites will focus on waterfowl, seabirds and perching birds.

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