Bird Crisis Increasing As Southbound Migrants Arrive, And Tides Inundate Rookeries
Finally, proactive measures are beginning to address the likelihood that southbound migrants are coming, and they are going to find the oil, meanwhile, the bird situation is deteriorating here at ground zero in Grand Isle, Louisiana. State and Federal wildlife managers are promoting and activating plans to flood fields and create wetland habitat further North of the Gulf in an effort being called "short stop". Though nothing on this scale has ever been tried before to halt birds from migrating by offering them alternative habitat, it seems well worth they try to put in the effort. Strong site fidelity, as well as genetic and behavioral tendencies may keep these birds moving south regardless of what they encounter during their journey, but given the absolute certainty that their normal foraging grounds will certainly contain many inherent dangers given the situation and amount of oil in the Gulf of Mexico yet to come ashore it seems to be an option worth experimenting with.
On July 5, local birder David Muth reported that the vanguards of the migrant shorebirds had arrived on Grand Isle, and yesterday, July 6, day 78 of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill I found them myself. North of the front beach in what are known locally as the "Exxon fields" foraged 5 Marbled Godwits, about 20 Dowitcher, and a Black-bellied Plover. This may not sound like a lot of birds, but it illustrates that shorebird migration doesn't start in September. It is here now and revving up, like water through an earthen damn, birds will trickle through in an ever increasing flow until the masses surge in by the thousands.
Marbled Godwits, Limosa fedoa, breed in the Canadian and American plains from Alberta and into Montana and even further south. Their population has been estimated at around 170,000 individuals, (Morrison et. al., 2001), and like most of our shorebirds, they are on the decline. Luckily, they are not shoreline obligates, but can and will forage in the marshes as well, using their long recurved bills to find tasty things, like Fiddler Crabs, down deep in the soft marsh mud. Unfortunately, though from the air it may not be obvious, oil from this gusher has infiltrated many of the marshes in Barataria Bay, and all along the Gulf Coast, and even those areas that aren't soaked with crude have experienced a contamination that will surely affect the ecosystems on which these birds depend.
An American Oystercatcher at Grand Isle State Park
Two other birds encountered yesterday bring to light some other issues involved with this spill, and its effects on our birds. Again, at the Grand Isle State Park beach I encountered an American Oystercatcher, Haematopus palliatus. On July 4th I had encountered four individuals, all of which were oiled on their bellies. No, they didn't look like the Brown Pelicans in the news dripping with thick crude, but they had sticky, orange oil on their vents and bellies. They could still fly well, and were foraging, so I did not call them in, as the wildlife rescue mission, admittedly, is not capturing birds that can still fly. The call in process is such that it doesn't allow for just counting oiled birds, and when called in, biologists must respond to the incident. With such dire circumstances here, I didn't want to detract from any effort of biologists responding to birds in greater need here on the island. On July 5th, I spoke with the President of the Baton Rouge Audubon Society Chapter, Eric Liffman, who encountered, presumably, the same individual Oystercatchers at the State Park. He did feel the need to call them in, and waited for biologists to respond. Through Eric's spotting scope he could clearly see that they were oiled, but when the biologists got there, they told him that they were NOT oiled. This is not a subjective matter, and it makes me wonder what the State, Federal and BP criteria are for determining what an oiled bird is? The American Oystercatcher's population is on the decline and estimated at around 10,000 individuals, (Sanders et al. 2004; Brown et al. 2003).
A dead Royal Tern on Grand Isle Beach, July 6, 2010
Also yesterday at the State Park, I encountered a dead Royal Tern, Sterna maxima, that had washed up in the oily scum along the tidal wrack. The Royal Terns are some of the most affected and least talked about birds here in Barataria Bay. Their colonies line the outer edges of the rookery islands here, and with these high tides and strong winds they have been hit hard by the oil. I reported earlier that on July 1st, I had seen about 85% oiling of the young of the year Royal Terns on Queen Bess Island, one of the main rookeries. These rookeries are a real hot topic. Biologists and the Unified Command have decided not to rescue these oiled birds as the potential for higher mortality throughout the colony exists through disturbance that might occur when rescuers enter the colony to capture birds. This would happen if targeted birds are flighted, and retreat to the interior of the rookery, thus potentially causing incubating birds, or chicks to abandon their nests, or even trample eggs, thus the effort to save one bird can potentially harm or kill many more.
Oil Soaked Royal Tern Chicks on Queen Bess Island, July 1, 2010
On July 1st, when I observed the birds on Queen Bess, these young Royal Terns were still not able to fly, and as I watched them "trying out" their wings, you could tell that their efforts were being hindered by the gooey oil which permeated their plumage. While the decision to not enter these colonies may make sense in many instances, this policy seems like a broad, "shotgun" approach to the management of this tragic situation, and in my view it would have been very feasible to rescue all of these oiled Royal Tern chicks that have congregated on the crude soaked edge of the colonies. It may now be too late.
Bird Rescue Underway on Cat Island, Barataria Bay on July 2, 2010
Yesterday evening, one of the wildlife responders told me, "we got a lot of dead birds in today." They told me that they had received Spoonbills, Herons, Pelicans and Terns and cited the very high tides that have inundated these colonies. Hindered by the gooey oil in their plumage, many of these young birds yet unable to fly have a much lower likelihood that they can escape the oily tides coming in. The wind has been blowing out of the south for over ten days now, helping to pile water into Barataria Bay, where more water stays than leaves in the outgoing tides. Each day the tides have gotten higher and higher as the new moon tides approach on Saturday and Sunday, when they will peak at their highest. This morning was the highest tide in the last two months here, yet the actual tidal level on the chart isn't as high as it read for June 14, or the new moon tide in May. Tides, even higher then when Hurricane Alex passed, piled over boom on Grand Ilse's front beach last night and washed away clean up crews tents, and decontamination stations, and brought oil further up onto the beach then it had occurred up to this point.
One has to wonder where the arbitrary "hot zone" demarcation now is here in Louisiana. I know for certain that last night these rookeries also experienced higher water and oil than they had seen previously seen, and certainly, many of these birds that had been stewing in this oil for weeks now, were washed away. With these heavy winds, and the new laws keeping the media from approaching these islands, America may never know the real effects on these colonies. We just have to hope that accurate numbers of birds were taken, and that biologists are making ardent efforts to get real data on these populations as they slowly dwindle, so that the "responsible party" will be held accountable. The agencies here are stretched to their limits with the recovery missions, and while every individual biologist working here is doing their best given the largess of this tragedy, I am skeptical that the Unified Command structure is putting enough resources toward documenting this quickly unfolding crisis.
US Fish and Wildlife Biologist Photographs Dead Royal Tern on Grand Isle, July 6, 2010
High Tides Dismantle Boom, Strand Decontamination Stations and Bring In Oily Scum to Grand Isle Beach, July 7, 2010