Audubon Oil Spill Response Team Update: Awaiting Tropical Storm Bonnie

Brown Pelicans with oiled chicks
Brown Pelicans rest near the edge of a breeding colony in Louisiana. Some chicks are lightly oiled. Melanie Driscoll/Audubon

It is going to get worse before it gets better.

As Tropical Storm Bonnie approaches, and fledgling pelicans and wading birds move out from the inner parts of colonies onto the oiled habitats at island edges in preparation of fledging, I am filled with dread.

Bonnie is not shaping up, so far, to be a major hurricane, but she will bring in a storm surge, and that surge may bring in more oil.  In her path are birds with thousands of young growing, wading, swimming, exercising their tender wings, and moving at their natural pace toward independence and the relative safety of flight.

This could be the perfect storm or not much of a storm at all.  There is oil in the water.  This we know.  But where it lurks beneath the surface, how much there is, and how much will be brought to land by Bonnie we cannot say.  We know there are many chicks and fledgling birds on the islands, but how many may be able to get up into taller shrubs and nests, out of the way of storm surge remains uncertain. Bonnie is coming, fast, straight at Louisiana’s beleaguered coast and pushing a wall of water in front of her.  But how big that storm surge is, and whether it will overwash islands, drown flightless young, or simply play at their feet under the safety of their perches, these are the things we do not know.

Of course, every year, nests fail and chicks and fledglings die on these islands, far away, usually, from the eyes, the cameras, and the compassion of humans.  These dramas play out without pity, without mercy, in the baking sun or lashing rain, out of sight and out of mind.  Some years, every nest fails and every offspring is lost, at least for some species, when islands are directly in the path of a major hurricane like Katrina.

Life is hard on these islands, the risk is great, but in good years, when the Gulf is calm and the islands are mostly free of predators and oil, the reward is also great.  These birds are adapted to the cycles – the tremendous losses, the bountiful successes.  This is how they have persisted for thousands of years, and it is how, with some help from humans, Brown Pelicans came back from extinction.  They returned slowly at first, after significant human intervention.  Then the comeback hastened as they began to recognize Louisiana as home again, found the protection of others in more crowded rookeries, and had the social stimulation to breed well and return year after year.  That’s how their populations grew from zero in the early 1960s to nearly 100,000 fifty years later.

The natural threat of hurricanes to the resurgent population is multiplied by the presence of oil. The toll may be great, and our grief and rage are justified.  This should not have happened.

The body count had grown in advance of the storm, and it will escalate  rapidly over the next few weeks regardless of Bonnie’s impact.  As young birds are either oiled in this storm, or fledge, rescue teams will be able to go onto these colonies for the first time since early May without fear of causing more harm than good.  They will find dead birds, many, many dead birds, I fear.  Because some adults that were lightly or moderately oiled but tried to care for their young may have perished in the islands’ interiors.  Chicks stained with oil from their parents’ bellies may have died of dehydration and overheating.  Fledglings that could still evade capture may have wandered into the center of colonies and perished.  Some chicks, yes, were orphaned when their parents died or were rescued.

This has all been known, by advocates, rescuers, and the public.  But we have not been faced with many of the pictures and the reality, yet.  We have not been faced with a body count in the high thousands.  We have lived with dread and fear, but not with fact.  It will get worse, before it gets better.  Steel yourselves.  The body count, the news, the photos.  Our grief and rage, they will get worse.

But there is a difference between survival of individual birds and survival of of a species.  Decisions have been made to stay out of colonies, knowing that individuals were dying, because those same colonies were producing a new generation of pelicans, gulls, terns, herons, egrets, and spoonbills.  Decisions were made to not move through fragile marshes weighed down with oil in an effort to preserve the homes to which surviving birds can return next year.  Those have been heartbreaking decisions for everyone concerned.  I will  not second-guess them.  Painful as they were and filled with unseen cost, they were an protecting a new generation and the hope for the future.

Ten days ago, I watched thousands of young Brown Pelicans exercising their wings, patiently awaiting the day they could take to the skies and fly ahead of storm surges and over their oiled homes.  They gave me hope.  Today I fear for them.  Yet they have had a fighting chance – a chance we worked to give them – and they still do.  In the coming days, I will watch Bonnie’s rapid approach, worry about the birds, and track the storm surges.  In my mind’s eye, I will imagine the birds safely above the surge, clinging to life as they always do at the harsh fringe between land and water.  This year, they are in our minds, and, after the storm passes, they will be on your TV screen, photographed as they emerged from the storm, some dead, some alive.

Remember, next year.  Remember, when decisions are made about energy use.  Remember, because, once this oil began to flow, it was already too late to save all of the birds.  We must decide more wisely in the future.  Because we must never let this happen again.

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