Oil Spill Update: First Oiled Birds Released Today, Containment Setbacks, Media Copters Disturb Nesting Birds, and More

Northern Gannet. Photo: Glen Tepke

Brown pelican. Photo: USFWS

Oil spill cleanup crews and wildlife rescuers are working tirelessly as oil continues leaking—to the tune of at least 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, a day—since the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up and sank off the Louisiana coast on April 22. Here’s a look at recent developments, from the first two treated birds being released, to tar balls washing up on an Alabama beach.

First Treated Birds Released
The first two oiled birds found in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill— a brown pelican and a northern gannet nicknamed “Lucky” by the workers who rescued him—have been cleaned and are now recovered and ready for release, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced. The agency will release the birds at 4 p.m. today, May 10, at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge on the Atlantic coast northeast of Vero Beach, Florida. Officials selected Pelican Island as the release site because it’s located within the Indian River Lagoon, the most biologically diverse estuary in the US, it has a large population of gannets and pelicans, and it’s out of the current oil spill trajectory. Read more about how oiled birds are rehabilitated.
About the birds:
Lucky, a young male gannet, was found April 27 in the Gulf near the source of the leak. The Tri-State Bird Rescue team found that he was about 80 percent oiled, giving him an orange appearance. He was thin and dehydrated, so he was given intravenous fluids several times, as well as oral fluids and Pepto-Bismol for oil he may have ingested. He was washed with a mild detergent solution on May 1, and has been in an outdoor pool for a few days now, gaining weight.
The pelican, also a young male, was found May 3 on Stone Island in Breton Sound on the Louisiana coast by a team of state and federal wildlife officials. He was thin and moderately oiled over his whole body. Experts treated him with IV and oral fluids, and started hand-feeding fish to him the first day. He was washed on 4 May and has been in an outside pool for several days, gaining weight.

Audubon on the Ground
While few oiled birds have been found so far, wildlife experts are bracing for large-scale rescue efforts. Audubon has several people on site helping out, including David Ringer, of Audubon’s Mississippi River Initiative, who is blogging about his experiences on The Perch. In a recent post, he describes birds still unaffected by the spill:
Forster’s Terns grasp silver fish in orange bills tipped black. Tricolored Herons pepper one island in dozens; White Ibises swirl in a tight, brilliant flock. Laughing Gulls laugh, cry, murmur, wail, and the air makes my skin sticky. A frigatebird makes an appearance. And the Brown Pelicans, a bird Audubon has been fighting to save since the organization began, sit on their nests, taking in the world through clear white eyes.
But birds elsewhere are under siege, beginning to make contact with oil as they dive for fish in contaminated waters. We are stuck in a sickening waiting game, knowing that some birds are oiled and that others soon will be, knowing that the entire ecosystem is being poisoned, wondering what tomorrow will bring, and the next day, and the next year.

Read more of David Ringer’s posts.

Breton National Wildlife Refuge. Courtesy USFWS
Media Helicopters Disturb Nesting Birds
“Birds in the Gulf of Mexico have a new enemy: the press. Media aircraft have been conducting illegal flights and disturbing birds over Breton National Wildlife Refuge, an Important Bird Area off the east coast of Louisiana where oil from the leaking BP wellhead has been washing ashore,” Justin Nobel reports for Audubon. Oil washed ashore on the Chandeleur Islands last week. The uninhabited barrier islands are part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge and important nesting and breeding areas for many bird species.
Tar Balls Wash Ashore
On Sunday, crews were investigating tar balls that washed up on Dauphin Island, Alabama. The tar balls, ranging in size from dimes to golf balls, were recovered and sent to a lab for further analysis to determine whether they’re from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig spill, or another source. Read more about tarballs at NOAA

The chamber was designed to cap the oil discharge that was a result of the Deepwater Horizon incident. Photo: USCG Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley.
Containment Dome Fails
On Saturday, BP officials announced that the 100-ton containment dome meant to siphon off most of oil pumping out of the seafloor wasn’t working. “Officials discovered that gas hydrates, ice-like crystals lighter than water, had built up inside the 100-ton metal container. The hydrates threatened to make the dome buoyant, and they also plugged up the top of the dome,  preventing it from being effective,” The New York Times reports. Next up? Yesterday, BP officials were considering deploying a smaller container that might be less prone to clogging, the LA Times reports: Capping the leak with a smaller box would ensure the oil and seawater mixture inside was warm enough to prevent the formation of slush that last week clogged the larger container. Also, BP is continuing to drill a relief well that would collect oil from one source of the leak. So far, the well has reached 9,0000 feet, but experts say it may take three months to complete.

Long History of Pollution in Gulf of Mexico
The Gulf of Mexico was hardly pristine before the oil spill. From coastal erosion to dead zones, The New York Times looks at the environmental degradation before the current disaster.
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