Despite the major movement toward the permanent capping of the Macondo well (the remnant of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil platform explosion), concern about the disaster's long-term toll on birds and their habitat remains very much alive.
"This hasn't been the avalanche of oiled-bird deaths that many remember from the Exxon Valdez disaster, but that doesn't mean we're home free," said National Audubon Society Director of Bird Conservation, Dr. Greg Butcher. "But this is a very different kind of spill than we've seen before and the impact is not as clear. Species that breed in the Gulf and others that migrate along the Central and Mississippi flyways still face a potentially serious toll and need our help."
Parts of many nesting islands and important habitats—including Audubon-designated Important Bird Areas across the Gulf—are still fouled by oil and remain susceptible to unknown amounts that remain on or below the surface of water. While much has disappeared from view, scientists say some oil will persist for weeks or longer; they remain uncertain of the threat it poses beach and marsh habitats that provide breeding grounds and stop-over sites for scores of bird species. There remains serious concern about the oil's impact on the marine food chain vital to birds and other Gulf species.
"It's great that they're close to finally killing the well, but it's a mistake to assume that means the birds got off easy," said Butcher. "This disaster awakened us to the importance of caring for the health of the Gulf and of habitat across America—we can't slip back into complacency just because the oil stopped flowing."
Heartbreaking images of oiled birds, including the brown pelican—just removed from the Endangered Species List—raised public awareness and concern, but tell only part of the story. Unseen and uncounted in seemingly low casualty figures are birds that simply disappeared below the water and those that could not be recovered without risk to healthy birds. Audubon sightings of oiled birds and their young on islands in Barataria Bay and other Gulf locales suggest that many more will succumb to a variety of stresses, from poisoning to inadequate parenting—whole generations could still be lost. Only time will reveal the spill's impact on many species. And only extensive efforts to protect their Gulf habitats and others can aid their long-term prognosis.
American White Pelican
Special monitoring efforts focusing on the two top-ten lists and other species impacted by the spill are already underway in Gulf States through Audubon's volunteer Coastal Bird Survey. Thousands of Citizen Scientists are using eBird to submit online bird data for analysis by Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Audubon's annual Christmas Bird Count will also provide information needed to interpret impacts on species populations. Over the next six months, Audubon will watch wandering birds and newly arriving migrants to see if they get oiled and if they find enough food to support themselves. Monitoring during next year's breeding season will show whether populations return to nesting grounds and if species heavily affected by oil will breed successfully.
"Volunteers can make a big difference for species that rely on Mississippi and Central flyway country by helping to restore and protect their habitats beyond the Gulf," said Butcher. Audubon Chapters will be leading hands-on habitat protection and restoration efforts at Important Bird Areas and other sites connected by birds to the Gulf. "This is another way that some of the 30,000 volunteers who registered with Audubon to respond to the Gulf crisis can make a significant difference, not only for the Gulf but for their own communities."
For the Gulf itself, Audubon and conservation colleagues have issued a Louisiana restoration prescription that will aid birds, other wildlife and local communities by improving the health of coastal ecosystems. Additional Audubon restoration efforts are planned throughout the region.
"This disaster is just the latest of many insults to a region already on the ecological edge," said Audubon's Senior Director of Government Relations, Mike Daulton. "It is gratifying that the public and the administration are now calling for long-term restoration, because now we have a chance to nurse it back to health. Audubon is committed to continuing its long presence in the Gulf to get the job done."