Arriving Migrant Shorebirds Deal With Contaminated Coast
More and more birds seem to be arriving on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. This week, increasing numbers of Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, and Semi-palmated Plovers were obvious on the shores of Grand Isle, Louisiana as well as many other species. I also took a trip to Waveland, Mississippi and again encountered large numbers of Semi-palmated Plovers and Sanderlings there, as well as a Piping Plover. The thrill of finding lots of fun birds to look at is being hampered by the uncertainty of their fate as we are still in the dark as to the effects on the ecosystem of the oil that has washed ashore here and the millions of gallons of dispersant that were poured into the Gulf. Yesterday while on an expedition to try and find an island where many dead birds were reported, we saw a large flock of American White Pelicans roosting along the oily shores of Terrbonne Bay. To see these majestic creatures along the shores where thousands of other birds are dying of unknown causes is distressing to say the least.
One hundred American White Pelicans testing fate.
Although the appearance of oil on plumage seems to be going down, throughout the gulf, people are finding dead and dying birds that don't appear oiled. On Raccoon Island, and in Lake Felicity photos have come out of massive die offs of birds, and it is very common now to see birds that just don't look right. They look lethargic and tattered. That's not a very scientific description, but anecdotally it seems that some of the birds down here just aren't healthy. Perhaps we are just now seeing the physiological effects of the oiling that some of these birds experienced earlier, or is it a secondary affect from something in the contaminated eco-system, or perhaps something totally unrelated?
A threatened Piping Plover on a beach in MS that had a dark, thick line of uncleaned oil underneath 14 inches of deposited sand.
One thing that is common in the Gulls, Terns and Pelicans is very uncharacteristically worn and disheveled plumage. A good percentage of birds seem to be adorned thusly, and their plumage seems less waterproof as well. It is not an uncommon sight to see Brown Pelicans with their wings spread like a cormorant, which is a behavior I have not witnessed in pelicans before. In my bird surveys, I have begun to make notes as to this worn plumage, or disheveled look, even though many of these birds don't outwardly appear oiled, it is certainly a likely effect from prior contact with the oil.
A disheveled Laughing Gull in Pointe aux Chien, Louisiana that was slow, and didn't fly well.
Maybe the fresh, sticky oil is no longer floating over the surface of the Gulf, however there are still many areas of beach that have heavy amounts of oil on them. There is now much less effort to clean these areas, and the amount of tarballs washing up on Louisiana beaches has not decreased one iota. Today on Grand Isle Beach, where it is open to swimming, fishing and crabbing, the beach was strewn with new tarballs, and not one person was cleaning any of it. These tarballs warm in the sun and soak into the sand, or become gooey and can directly oil bird's plumage, especially Sanderlings and Plovers that forage along the beach front.
A migrant Pectoral Sandpiper plies the contaminated Mississippi mud.
The scale of this disaster is so huge, that many people seem to be ok with the amount of oil that is being left on the beaches now, and will likely never be cleaned. The fact of the matter is, if the amount of oil just on Grand Isle right now were to wash in on a New England Beach, or in San Francisco it would be a major environmental disaster. The apathy towards this catastrophe is very dis-heartening, and is directly affecting our nation's avi-fauna, and there seems to be no outcry for better handling. The USFWS seems to be content with all of the oil on the shores, even on the Chandeleur Islands, and Raccoon Island. I can bring a shovel to any beach now and find lots of oil under the sand from Waveland, MS to Terrebonne Bay, Louisiana. On the east end of Grand Isle alone, a thick mat 50 meters by 10 meters wide, and 6 inches thick blankets the shoreline. That is 18,500 gallons worth of weathered oil on the shores, which goes uncleaned even today. The amount of fresh oil represented by that number is likely double the figure! Now extrapolate that along the entire southeastern Louisiana Coast where oil of this type is everywhere. Is that OK?
One shovel reveals three distinct layers of uncleaned oil in the sand on Grand Isle,LA on August 21.
The situation here for the birds is far from over, and there are more unanswered questions every day. The crew that discovered the dead birds in Terrebonne Bay has taken tissue samples, so I hope that at least there will be independent testing as to the cause of death of some of these birds. Will the one hundred American White Pelicans meet the same fate? Only time will tell.