Audubon Oil Spill Response Team Update: Status of bird rescue efforts

I have heard many concerns and rumors about the field rescue of birds, and want to give some of my own perspective on it.  I was out in Barataria Bay, which had received very heavy oiling a week previously, on Saturday, June 11.  I went with a field rescue team from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

We went out to several islands and slowly circumnavigated each, searching through the visible birds with binoculars from outside the boom placed to protect the islands.  We went to some small, grassy islands with nesting Forster’s Terns, Laughing Gulls, and Tricolored Herons.  We also went to an island that is completely covered in mangroves, full of Brown Pelicans, Great Egrets, and a few Roseate Spoonbills, Reddish Egrets, and Black-crowned Night-Herons.  And we visited Queen Bess Island, one of the most  important Brown Pelican rookeries, also full of Laughing Gulls, Royal Terns, spoonbills, Great and Snowy Egrets, and Tricolored Herons.  We visited several of the islands three times that day, and saw how conditions differ between low and high tide, and how much can change between visits.

My greatest source of concern for something that can be managed was the inappropriate management of boom.  A layer of hard boom to keep oil out surrounded each island, and a layer of absorbent boom was supposed to be inside this protective ring.  We did see absorbent boom – heavily oiled, piled up on shores, tangled in mangroves, and wave-tossed deep into marshes.  We also saw garbage bags full of oiled boom on some of the shores.

oiled sorbent boom piled up near birds
Soiled boom piled up near nesting Brown Pelicans. Melanie Driscoll/Audubon

The soiled boom was acting as a convenient perch site for pelicans, gulls, terns, herons and egrets.  It was a barrier between recently fledged birds and the land-water interface where they would begin to feed and bathe.  It has, according to LDWF personnel, been oiled and on the islands for days to sometimes weeks.  On these islands identified and prioritized as areas to be protected.  They have reported this repeatedly to Joint Incident Command, to attempt to get contract workers to remove the oiled boom and replace it with clean boom. This is one source of oil that can be removed quickly and easily, with little disturbance to birds.

Forster's Terns with oiled boom and vegetation
A Forster's Tern perches on soiled boom as another flies past oil-coated vegetation. Melanie Driscoll/Audubon

I saw fewer oiled birds than I expected based on reports, perhaps because many have been rescued in the past few days, and perhaps because visibility of birds changes over time.  For example, at high tide, less habitat was visible, and the water was deeper where the islands met the water.  Later, at low tide, foraging conditions may have been more optimal.  Many more birds were foraging near the islands, and I saw more oiled birds, including Snowy Egrets, young Roseate Spoonbills, and a fairly heavily oiled Reddish Egret. Also, we circled Queen Bess Island on our first visit, and found a heavily oiled pelican only when we reached our initial starting point.  Whether it moved to the edge of the island as we were going around, or somehow flew in, I will never know.  But it was not there at 9:00 a.m., and was there and not very mobile at 9:30 a.m.

Brown Pelican coated in oil
Brown Pelican covered with oil. Melanie Driscoll/Audubon

LDWF staff did rescue that pelican.  One person had to walk on the island to gently herd the bird into the water, so that it would not escape into the interior of the island.  As staff kept it away from the island, the boat captain carefully got the boat between the pelican and the land, so that it could be netted from the boat.  One person quickly and expertly slid a net under the swimming bird, grabbed its bill to prevent it from biting, and lifted it into the boat.

Brown Pelican is rescued
A Brown Pelican is rescued and lifted into a boat. Melanie Driscoll/Audubon

The other person picked the bird up and put it in a crate, where it was well secured and shielded by a cloth cover to reduce its stress.  We immediately took it to a dock, where it could be transported to a stabilization center.  I was surprised, given how distressed the bird seemed, how mobile it still was.  It was good to be able to catch it, but capture was not a certain outcome.  And, in the process, many gulls and some pelicans and herons left their nests, exposing the eggs to heat and potentially to predators.  In this disaster, all choices come with some risks.

Michael Seymour rescues a pelican
Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist Michael Seymour participates in a pelican rescue -- which unavoidably disturbs dozens of nesting birds. Melanie Driscoll/Audubon

Later we tried to rescue 3 other heavily oiled pelicans.  When a small boat called a pirogue was paddled over to shore where they were standing, wings held out as if to dry, preening continuously, they each took to labored flight and settled into the interior of the island.  At what cost, their self-protective flight away from the threat of humans?  At what cost to the colony would have come a more determined effort to capture them?  Most other oiled adults were even more mobile, and thus, less likely to be caught.

And what of the oiled chicks, some still in nests, some recently fledged?  Most of the ones we could see were at the edge of the colony.  Some were obviously being fed by adults, and were accepting the food, then resting between meals.

Brown Pelicans and chicks, some oiled
Brown Pelicans and chicks. The chicks in the lower left of the image are oiled. Melanie Driscoll/Audubon

They were quite intermixed – I saw several nests with one oiled and one clean pelican chick.  Other nearby chicks of various ages were in various stages of oiling – some a light yellow, some with patches of oil, and some orange, brown, or even black with the sticky mess.  But they also have protective defenses against threats.  At the approach of a human, old enough chicks will jump from a nest and scramble through the stems of grasses, shrubs, and into the thicker interior of the island.  Only the stems of all the vegetation are coated with oil.  As the tide comes in, oil washes higher up onto the grasses and mangroves.  There it stays, even when the water around the islands appears clean again.  The self-protective escape of chicks would put many more clean young into the oil, the very threat from which we threatening humans are trying to rescue them.  How many must be oiled before it is worth risking the rest of the young?

oiled Royal Tern chicks
Oiled Royal Tern chicks (brown). Melanie Driscoll/Audubon

The habitats themselves are protective places, full of water in the land, fragile and inaccessible.  The mangroves come right into the water on one island, acting as a barrier to human rescuers, shielding smaller and more agile birds.  The marsh grasses are low, some gull nests are nearly in the water.  Humans can tread on these islands, but must go slowly and carefully, and not too often for fear of damaging the eroding habitat.  Even sloped beaches are now hazardous with oil that may be slick, may be sticky.  The very features, both of birds and of their habitats, that normally protect them from threats, now put them more at risk by helping the birds evade their would-be rescuers.

 Laughing Gulls in oiled grass
Laughing Gulls stand in oiled-covered marsh grass. Melanie Driscoll/Audubon

I am sorry that I cannot right this wrong.  These decisions are the decisions no one should have to make.  Do we sacrifice individuals to help protect the health of the species?  Do we abandon oiled young so that some unoiled young may have more days to grow up and hopefully fledge?  Humans play this waiting game, often helpless observers, occasionally heroic rescuers, knowing that these are the decisions they cannot make well.  We must all live with those decisions, those images burned into our minds.  We must witness the suffering of the individuals, knowing that even the best decisions may not prevent more suffering of the species.

I want to tell you that we can fix it – the field rescue teams, the volunteer facilitators, the land transport teams, the vets, the vet techs, the paraprofessionals.  I wish I could tell you that we can do this, and do it well.  But we can only do it as well as humans can, without perfect insight, without an ability to change disaster or biology, without the advantage of foreknowledge or hindsight.  The only way to fix this is to put the protections in place to ensure that it never happens again.  And right now, for many of us, and for many birds, that is not enough.

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