Audubon Oil Spill Response Team Update: What does a bird conservation director do?

Black Skimmers interact in midair
Black Skimmers interact in mid-air. Melanie Driscoll/Audubon

What does an Audubon bird conservation director do during an oil spill? No two days are the same; here's a glimpse of the last three:

Tuesday, July 13, 10:00 a.m. I just reminded Paul Kemp (vice president of the Louisiana Coastal Initiative) that we need to identify some island-building science resources for Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser. When I ran into him a few days ago at Myrtle Grove, he said that he wants to take some of the money that has come in and build an island, and he wants to do it right, so that it creates good bird habitat. He asked if Audubon could help. I assured him that we could.

Paul and I called Woody Gagliano, a coastal scientist with years of experience working on coastal restoration. When we explained our mission, Woody said he is working on a similar project in adjacent St. Bernard Parish, and he would be happy to help in Plaquemines Parish. We discussed project design and next steps, and Woody promised to send a brief outline within a couple of days. I then spoke with P.J. Hahn, the director of coastal zone management for Plaquemines Parish. He expressed excitement about working with Audubon to create good bird habitat in an ecologically sound way. He asked me why some new islands are not used by birds, and I related it to people moving back to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Until you know you will have neighbors, a neighborhood does not seem safe. I assured him that we could help make the habitat enticing to birds.

Tuesday, 4:00 p.m. I talked with Natalie Snider, one of our partners at Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. We discussed creating oyster reef islands.  The Black Skimmers would love them – a place to loaf, court, and raise their young. We also talked about project costs – it could take anywhere from $100,000 to $4 million to create an island. Paul and I have some funding ideas. Scientists are on board and excited. Paul wrote a brief project proposal. I need to set up a meeting to move this idea forward early next week.

Wednesday, July 14, 4:15 a.m. Leaving home to meet a captain to conduct oiled bird surveys in Barataria Bay.

Wednesday, 6:45 a.m. After a brief delay, left Myrtle Grove Marina to survey islands and birds in Barataria Bay. I noted several things at the first couple of islands. Marsh grass that has been oiled for a while is yellowing. We hope that as this stressed marsh grass dies back, the roots are still unaffected and will produce new grass shoots, but as with many oil spill issues, it is too early to tell what the ultimate outcome will be. Once marsh grass is oiled, there's no way to clean it. Oiled sorbent boom was piled up in the habitat on the first small grassy island I observed. Took location notes and photos, and must report the boom management issue to Joint Incident Command.

Wednesday, 8:40 a.m. In the Cat Island chain, found the mangrove island looking better than on my last visit. Several Great Egrets were very oiled, but still flight-capable, and therefore not likely to be caught. While several Brown Pelicans were also oiled, there were over 2,000 adults and fledglings, and over 99% of them looked clean and healthy. The fledglings are getting very big and are increasingly active.

Wednesday, 9:10 a.m. On a small grassy island, few birds were visible. On closer inspection, though, the marsh grass was dotted liberally with heron heads – heads of Tricolored Herons, to be precise. Throughout my surveys of these islands, I’ve found most of these ‘Louisiana’ Herons to be largely free of oil. I wonder what their secret it. I wish I could convey it to all of the herons and egrets.

Near one large patch of heavily oiled marsh grass rests a lump that's difficult to identify. It moves slightly, and from a position away from the boom surrounding the island, appears to be a heavily oiled bird preening. More observation tells me that it must be a night-heron, though it is difficult to be certain. I call the Oiled Wildlife Hotline, which I am aware is now operating out of JIC in Houma, La. Voicemail. I leave a brief message with my name, the bird species, location, and my phone number. I am surprised about three minutes later when a professional-sounding female returns my call, greets me by name, and asks me if I can give her the GPS coordinates of the night-heron. I comply, and she calmly repeats them back to me. She confirms the species identification and tells me that a wildlife biologist will call me back in a few minutes. That call comes, we confirm the information, and he says he will call me if he has more questions. He calls again, pinpoints the location, and tells me he is dispatching a rescue team. He has located the island on a map, describes it to me, and it is the correct location. The rescue team calls me a few minutes later, asks for more location details, then tell me they have located the bird and are about to rescue it.

It worked! The process worked, smoothly, professionally, as it should. There was no need to spell a bird name or repeat myself to be understood, as has happened in the past. From the first call to the last, it was clear that the responders were familiar with the landscapes and birds of Louisiana. It was clear that they were in the same location, and that they were communicating with each other. It was clear that suggestions I have made to improve the Oiled Wildlife Hotline have been implemented. This system has worked in the past, sometimes, but has certainly not inspired confidence. But those in charge have listened, and today the Oiled Wildlife Hotline worked well. It feels good to know that suggestions have been accepted, communication has improved. It is a small piece of the big picture, but I will have to thank several people to whom I have recommended improvements in this process. I bask briefly in the hopefulness that other, more substantive changes may also follow recommendations Audubon has compiled.

Wednesday, 3:17 p.m. While driving back to Baton Rouge for an evening meeting, I return a call to Chris, an eBird programmer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He has good news – they have a grant to modify the eBird data form to allow us to enter oiled bird data more accurately. I, along with researchers from LSU, have been pushing for this new data form for weeks. Now that the funding is in place, we can design the form, and it will be ready soon. The data form will allow all of Audubon’s Coastal Bird Survey teams to enter their oiled bird monitoring data online, where it will be publicly accessible. The data set collected by our citizen scientists will allow Audubon to independently assess the damage and risk to birds of the oil spill. It will allow us to track their recovery, as habitat restoration and population protection at our Important Bird Areas progresses. The data form is only one step, but it allows for public involvement and transparency in the bird damage assessment.

Thursday, July 15, 8:15 a.m. Met a scientist from the Ocean Conservancy to discuss the oil spill, and how we can partner in the future to protect the Gulf of Mexico habitats, their incredible biodiversity, including the birds and fishes they rely on.

Thursday, 10:30 a.m. Began the two-hour drive to Intracoastal City to meet Timmy, our Rainey Sanctuary manager, and two representatives from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation who wanted to see the beginnings of a habitat-creation project they just funded.

Thursday, 3:00 p.m. After a couple of hours of showing the NFWF staff our sanctuary, and explaining the threats that have put our saltmarshes at risk for many years, we finally reach the project site. There a levee that should hold out salt water and help us maintain water levels is in disrepair. Timmy describes how the levee, when repaired, will allow us to create about 700 acres of mudflats and shallow water – enticing habitat for the migrant shorebirds that are even now coming to Louisiana’s coast to stopover, rest and fatten up for the long migration across the Gulf of Mexico. The NFWF staff are excited about this opportunity to help us protect our marsh and create new habitat. Some shorebirds may stop at inland habitats, bypassing the coastal zone entirely. But some species, such as Short-billed Dowitchers, rely more on coastal, salt-marsh habitats, and will be more at risk from the oil. We have extensive habitats for these species, and have yet to receive extensive oiling. For now, this truly is a sanctuary – a safe stopover during a hazardous migration to a threatened coast. Protecting and creating safe habitat is a powerful way Audubon is working to prevent some birds from getting oiled, and is a continuation of our 80-plus years of bird and habitat stewardship as a landowner in Louisiana.

Thursday, 4:00 p.m. One of the NFWF officials asks me if we can use our volunteers to monitor bird use of the habitats they are paying to have landowners create this fall. For this is a huge experiment – if we build it, will they come? For all of the resources going into creating shallow-water impoundments, we need to know if they are actually being used by shorebirds and ducks coming south now. I promise that I will speak to our national field director first thing in the morning to begin to set this up. Interested volunteers can be trained at our Volunteer Response Center in Moss Point, Miss. They can be mobilized across the Gulf Coast to document use of new habitats by birds. Rather than only counting oiled birds, perhaps we can begin to count those that do not need to become oiled.

Thursday, 5:17 p.m. Returned a call to a staff member from the bird rehabilitation effort. He has a request. Could Audubon’s volunteers be asked, all of them, to look for the banded rehabilitated Brown Pelicans? There is an opportunity to learn more about the survival rates, movements, and ability to breed again of these magnificent birds. Birds are often tagged after they have been cleaned of oil, but it takes a tremendous amount of effort to track them, to learn more about how they fare after their ordeal. With over 30,000 people in our database, more than half of them in Gulf Coast states, we can provide the effort to resight and report those birds. He was excited when he left his message. I am excited about our ability to add value to these efforts. Another game of phone tag, but with another good result. I promise in my return message to propose this, work on the plan, and to move forward on this idea too.

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