Large Oil Spill in Galveston Bay Threatens Tens of Thousands of Birds

This weekend, National Audubon Society got some alarming news from Texas: 168,000 gallons of residual fuel oil, which is a thick, tar-like substance, spilled into Galveston Bay after two vessels collided on Saturday. The oil discharge has been stopped, but cleanup and containment have just begun. Audubon is responding at all levels, with local efforts being led by Houston Audubon Society. The timing couldn't be worse: Spring migration is in full swing right now at nearby Bolivar Flats, a Globally Important Bird Area and Houston Audubon Society-managed sanctuary. Oiled American White Pelicans and Sanderlings are already appearing in the sanctuary, according to Houston Audubon’s Conservation Director Richard Gibbons.

The potential for harm is staggering; Bolivar Flats hosts important congregations of Piping, Snowy and Wilson's plovers and other birds, including American Oystercatcher, Red Knot and Brown Pelican, every migration season. And birds that feed in the open water, where most of the oil seems to be right now, are at high risk. These include American White Pelicans, Brown Pelicans, loons, grebes, gannets, some ducks and many terns and gulls. And if the spill is not contained, the greater Galveston Bay could be in jeopardy. The bay is a major feeding and stopover area for waterbirds—if oil makes incursions into the marshes behind the jetties and beaches, ibises, spoonbills, herons and egrets, rails, bitterns, Seaside and Nelson's Sparrows, and others would also be at risk.

Audubon Texas staff have been working with Houston Audubon, USFWS, and other partners in the area to organize volunteer response efforts for habitat clean-up and addressing oiled wildlife.  Additionally, Audubon is in contact with regulatory agencies regarding expectations for clean-up and overall response effectiveness.

Houston Audubon, a 5,000-member strong local Audubon chapter, has been actively conserving local bird habitat for almost 40 years. In 1997, Houston Audubon purchased the first 178-acre tract of land and established the Bolivar Flats Bird Sanctuary. Since that initial purchase, Bolivar Flats has grown to its present size of 1,146 acres, which incorporates mudflats and nearby marshland into an internationally recognized Globally Significant Important Bird Area. The Bolivar Flats Sanctuary is home to tens of thousands of waterbirds and shorebirds, including the Sanderling, American White Pelican, and Ruddy Turnstone. 

Hear about the birds of the Bolivar Flats and Audubon’s work to protect them from our partner podcast BirdNote:

Learn more about Houston Audubon Society's work to protect the Bolivar Flats and other critical bird habitat.


Audubon Texas, which was formed in the late 19th century, manages 13,000 acres of shoreline habitat. The state has the largest colonies of Roseate Spoonbills and Reddish Egrets in the world, and is home to large populations of Brown Pelicans, plovers, oystercatchers and terns. These barrier islands also support critical nesting areas for the critically endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle. These habitats are maintained in part with the efforts of coastal wardens.