Flashes of pink in buttonbush trees betray roseate spoonbills nesting in Louisiana’s marshes, just miles from where oil spread in the Gulf of Mexico last year. At the time ornithologists feared that the birds’ pink feathers would be marred with viscous black ooze. Despite the fact that the oil spill’s affect on the species is still largely unknown, it seems that the blushing birds largely escaped the worst of it.
“We sort of dodged the bullet there,” says Clint Jeske, an ornithologist with the USGS’s National Wetlands Research Center. “Really with the oil spill we got very, very lucky. It stayed right there on the coast. We didn’t get a tropical storm or anything that pushed the oil further into the marsh.”
The birds in Florida also suffered no effects, says Jerry Lorenz, the director of research for Audubon of Florida. For the past 30 years, roseate spoonbill numbers have hovered around 1,250 breeding pairs in Louisiana, despite challenges like drought, hurricanes, and habitat loss. Sporatic surveys—done mostly to locate wading bird colonies so that officials can issue oil and gas permits that won’t harm the breeding birds—show that instead of a few large colonies on the coast, there are now about 250 active colonies further inland.
Areas where roseates used to nest are now open water, says Jeske. Man-made rawfish ponds lure these filter feeders further from the coast, so there’s less of a concern now that most of them will eat shrimp contaminated by the spill. “They’ve had the table set for them in these inland areas,” says Jeske.
Those colonies are affected by crippling drought and destructive hurricanes, disasters that give researchers an idea of how long it will take to assess the full extent of the oil spill.
“A lot of live oak trees that died because of Hurricane Rita didn’t die until two or three year after. It’s difficult to see how long it will take if there’s an impact outside of the immediately dead birds. If we have reproductive effects, we may not see a change in population for 10 years. It maybe really difficult to point to a real problem until the population goes way down,” says Jeske. “I think that the biggest thing with the oil spill is the patience that it’s going to take to evaluate it.”