One year after the BP oil disaster began in the Gulf of Mexico, Audubon experts report that oil can still be found in gulf marshes and beaches that provide critical habitat for at-risk birds. Recent trips through Louisiana’s Barataria Bay revealed tar balls on beaches and oil oozing through marsh grasses, a discouraging sight as the breeding season begins for dozens of Gulf Coast bird species.
“Irresponsible and negligent is how we described BP last year. The same is true for Congress now. It’s been nearly a year and we’re still waiting for Congress to make sure that BP penalty fines will be used to clean up BP’s mess,” said David Yarnold, Audubon President and CEO. “The oil disaster dealt a devastating blow to wildlife and communities, it is time to put politics aside and do the right thing for the Gulf.”
Oil and natural gas gushed into the Gulf for three months before the well was finally capped in July. By then, the region had endured the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Oil reached all Gulf states and washed up along a thousand miles of U.S. coastline, including 17 Important Bird Areas. Birds, other wildlife, habitats, and communities all suffered – and continue to suffer.
One thing I’m very concerned about now, as we begin a new breeding season, is that there’s still lots of oil in places where many species of birds nest and feed,” said Melanie Driscoll, Audubon’s Director of Bird Conservation for the Gulf. “As species like Wilson’s Plover and Least Tern return to their traditional breeding grounds, they are coming into contact with oil again, which poses many health risks to them and their young.”
Oil can also harm birds by affecting their food sources. Birds could go hungry if oil or cleanup activities reduce availability of prey such as fish, marine worms, oysters and crustaceans (including shrimp and crabs). Additionally, damaging compounds from oil work their way through the food web with potential impacts on birds’ overall health and reproductive success. In March, Audubon staff found marine worms burrowing in tar balls on Grande Terre, Louisiana. Laboratory analysis of the tar balls, led by researchers at Millsaps College, showed concentrations of hydrocarbons that can enter the food web through organisms like the worms and can pose long-term health risks for adult birds or fatalities or birth defects in developing bird embryos.
“Oil will continue to change form and affect these complex food webs in many different ways for years to come,” said Driscoll.
Audubon teams also observed coastal marsh grasses that have not recovered from oiling and are now dying or dead. That leaves some areas more vulnerable to erosion. Other sites show evidence of ongoing clean-up activity – with associated disturbance of birds’ nesting habitat. For both of these reasons, Audubon is particularly concerned about birds that depend on sandy beaches and barrier islands and salt marshes.
“Birds like the Red Knot, Black Skimmer and Piping Plover face diminishing habitat and increasing environmental threats throughout their ranges,” said Greg Butcher, Audubon Director of Bird Conservation. “They count on healthy places in the Gulf for wintering grounds, or to rest and refuel during migration, or for breeding. Unfortunately, the Gulf is not a safe haven for these birds right now – not just because of the oil spill, but also because of dramatic habitat loss.”
Audubon has identified several species that may be especially vulnerable to the spill’s effects, especially in light of the other challenges they face. These species include Black Skimmer, Clapper Rail, Least Tern, Piping Plover, Red Knot, Sanderling, Seaside Sparrow, and Wilson’s Plover (additional information on each included below).
Last summer, Audubon staff and volunteers played a crucial role in helping to reduce the BP oil spill’s impacts on birds and habitat. Ongoing Audubon monitoring work on the Gulf Coast and nationwide is providing scientists and policymakers with long term data to decipher the effects of the disaster. This includes a Coastal Bird Survey which was launched during the spill, and trend analysis of Gulf Christmas Bird Count data which will help assess impacts over time. Meanwhile, Audubon continues its longstanding work to address the multiple threats to the health of those ecosystems. Learn more at http://gulfoilspill.audubon.org/cleanup-and-restoration
“If we can marshal the passion and sense of urgency we all felt a year ago, we can turn the tide and create a sustainable Gulf that is even healthier than it was before the disaster,” said David Yarnold. “We can enable the Louisiana coast to rebuild itself, by working with the power of the Mississippi River instead of against it. We can re-envision our energy future in ways that don’t risk toxic overload of our waters, lands and communities. And we can ensure that the rich biological and cultural diversity of this vital, vibrant region inspires our children and grandchildren as it has us.”
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Black Skimmers nest where weathered oil continues washing ashore and cleanup crews are active: sand and shell beaches and islands. Skimmers lay their eggs directly on the ground. Populations are declining because of habitat loss to development and coastal erosion, and disturbance by humans; lingering oil and cleanup activities across the northern Gulf Coast pose additional stresses.
Clapper Rails rely on dwindling coastal wetlands along the Gulf Coast. Where BP oil infiltrated salt marshes, it remains in the soil and in the vegetation, and these secretive birds are at risk of ongoing contact with oil, as well as consumption of contaminated food.
Least Terns lay their eggs on bare sand. Because they nest in areas hardest hit by oil and where cleanup and response operations were most intense, they faced many challenges during the 2010 breeding season, and this year will be another tough one with lingering oil and cleanup crews walking and driving the beaches. Even before the spill, habitat loss and disturbance by humans had taken a toll on the Least Tern, which is classified Red on Audubon’s WatchList.
Piping Plovers winter on Gulf Coast beaches and barrier islands. Their populations are jeopardized by development and human disturbance, which have reduced available habitat and nesting success. The species is listed as threatened and endangered by the U.S. government. Conservation efforts are beginning to pay off in some breeding locations, but wintertime exposure to toxic compounds from oil, reduced habitat quantity and quality and a compromised food web is bad news for these fragile birds.
Red Knots migrate from high in the Arctic to the southern tip of South America, a journey of thousands of miles each year. In order to make these long flights, Red Knots need migratory stopover sites that are rich in food and free of disturbance, which causes them to waste energy they need to conserve. Human interference with these stopover sites – especially at Delaware Bay – has brought about a dramatic population decline. And now, many stopover sites on Gulf Coast beaches and barrier islands are also compromised.
Sanderlings, running up and down the beach with the surf, are a familiar sight for beachgoers throughout North America. Like the Red Knot, they undertake very long migratory journeys from high in the Arctic to southern South America, though some stay to spend the winter along the Gulf Coast. The Sanderling is still a common bird, but Gulf Coast Christmas Bird Count data show a slow but steady decline since the 1960s. Like other birds that feed on beaches, Sanderlings are threatened by contaminated prey or reduced prey abundance, lingering oil, disturbance and reduced habitat quality.
Seaside Sparrows spend their entire lives in the dense grasses of coastal salt marsh. Christmas Bird Count data show a steady decline since the 1960s in the central Gulf Coast states, where the bird was most abundant. BP oil persists in significant quantities in some coastal salt marshes, putting Seaside Sparrows at continued risk of direct oiling and contaminated or reduced food supplies, plus habitat loss in areas where heavy oiling actually killed marsh. The Dusky Seaside Sparrow, a Florida subspecies, went extinct in 1987 because of a combination of food chain contamination and habitat manipulation and destruction.
Wilson’s Plover has a global population of only a few thousand birds, many of which nest in Important Bird Areas along the U.S. Gulf Coast. Gulf Christmas Bird Count data show a sharp drop in numbers since the 1960s. The species is vulnerable to the same threats that trouble other birds of beaches and barrier islands: habitat loss and human disturbance. Where BP oil is still present in significant quantities, it puts Wilson’s Plovers at risk of ingesting contaminated food, not being able to find enough food or transferring oil onto their chicks or eggs. Ongoing cleanup activities could also prevent successful nesting for another year.