In Limbo In Louisiana: Birds on Pelican Island Engaged in a Waiting Game

Audubon Director of Bird Conservation Greg Butcher, by David J. Ringer

The call came Wednesday night, May 5. Would I be willing to fly to Louisiana to assess the oil spill and advise on what Audubon could do to help? Within two hours, I was at the airport.

Today is my fifth day on-site. Anticipating the worst, Audubon mobilized volunteers to help transport oiled birds, but surprisingly few need it so far. Unfortunately, we still expect that there will be many oiled birds over the next weeks and months as the oil continues to ooze, slowly but surely, from the spill site. Our biggest fear is that a storm from out of the south could spread the oil all over the beaches and marshes and towns of coastal Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, or even Texas.

Brown pelican on nest, by David J. Ringer.
Last Thursday and Saturday, Melanie Driscoll, David Ringer, and I were able to visit Pelican Island in California Bay north of Venice, Louisiana. As David reported, Pelican and the neighboring islands are teeming with bird life. It is the height of nesting season. Great Egrets have young in the nest; Brown Pelicans are sitting on eggs. Roseate Spoonbills, Black-crowned Night-Herons, and Tricolored Herons are all in their colonies. (We couldn’t see in their nests to see what stage they are in.)
What should be a glorious time to visit breeding bird islands is instead a time of dread. Even though the oil is about 30 miles from Pelican Island, bright orange booms were being placed around the islands on Saturday. It is only a matter of time before the oil arrives.

Booms in front of rookery, by David J. Ringer.
As Audubon’s Director of Bird Conservation, I’m focused on what Audubon can do to help bird populations over time and how we can help document the loss of birds to the oil spill and their long-term recovery. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rightly has the lead in bird monitoring, and their plans will be announced shortly. In the meantime, Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have launched a special eBird project to encourage birders to go to the coast and do simple bird surveys. (Read more here.)
If you do go to the coast, be aware of nesting birds. We don’t want birders or other volunteers disturbing coastal nesting birds when these are the very birds we are trying to help!
In addition to the eBird effort, two graduate students from Louisiana State University (LSU) have launched a supplemental survey to the eBird project for the beaches of Louisiana. We hope to help integrate their efforts with those of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Audubon has a coastal Louisiana program that is focused on long-term wetlands recovery. Having had a coastal sanctuary in Louisiana for more than 85 years, we now have additional staff that can work throughout the state’s coast. They are doing great work and will be here to help both the (relatively) short-term recovery from the oil spill and the long-term effort it requires to reverse decades of wetlands loss.
In addition to oil spills, major threats contributing to wetland disappearance are 1) the over-engineering of the Mississippi River, which causes sediments to be deposited in the deep Gulf of Mexico rather than along the coast where they could help build wetlands and barrier islands, and 2) sea-level rise that helps water over-top the wetlands and increases the damage caused by storms.
Despite my sorrow in seeing degraded wetlands and the threat of the oil spill, it has been inspiring to see so many people – government employees, Audubon employees and volunteers, and many others –working together to rebuild the natural Louisiana coast. Let’s help them out any way we can.

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