“While sailing towards the Florida Keys, my mind was agitated with anticipations of the delight I should experience in exploring a region whose productions were very imperfectly known,” wrote John J. Audubon in volume 6 of his Birds of America. His travels had brought him to the Florida Keys where he was in search of herons. He would not be disappointed.
It was along the Florida coast where Audubon would be first introduced to a bird that piqued his curiosity. Never before had he seen a heron of this hue: “Some of them were as white as driven snow, the rest of a delicate purplish tint, inclining to grey on the back and wings, with heads and necks of a curious reddish color,” wrote Audubon. “You may imagine the pleasure I felt, as well as that which I experienced on becoming better acquainted with this species.”
Audubon had come face-to-face with his first reddish egret, a relative of the heron now finding itself in a precarious position along the GulfCoast.
Back when Audubon traversed the Keys, the birds were abundant. Since then, things have changed and could dramatically change again if weather in the GulfCoast worsens at the right time.
The reddish egret is spread thinly across the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi among other GulfCoast states. As with many egrets, the species became the target of the feather trade which pushed the birds near extinction. A combination of their ornate plumes and their easily accessible large breeding colonies made them especially vulnerable.
Although conservation efforts and changes in fashion have helped to revive the egret population, the reddish egret continues to be listed as “red” on the Audubon Watchlist meaning it is a species of global concern with either have rapidly declining populations or very small populations and limited ranges.
The biggest concern for reddish egrets along the GulfCoast is their feeding areas. The birds forage in shallow sand or mud flats along the coast where they look for fish. If oil gets into these areas, the birds could become covered in oil or might end up consuming contaminated fish.
“Any of these birds that are foraging in heavily oiled waters could very easily die,” said Director of Bird Conservation from the National Audubon Society, Greg Butcher. “They could get sick enough not to nest, so there’s a real concern that we’re going to lose a lot of these colonies.”
The booms currently in place should stymie most of the oil, said Butcher, but in the case of a storm, winds could blow oil over the booms and into feeding areas. With hurricane season around the corner, things are looking grim.
“A major storm is going to be the game changer,” said Butcher. “It’s going to take a lot of time and money to stabilize that system and to provide that habitat that’s needed after this. It’s real important to focus a lot of the clean up dollars on long term solutions – just taking the oil out of the system isn’t going to be enough.”