Audubon Oil Spill Response Team Update: Status of bird rescue efforts
I have heard many concerns and rumors about the field rescue of birds, and want to give some of my own perspective on it. I was out in Barataria Bay, which had received very heavy oiling a week previously, on Saturday, June 11. I went with a field rescue team from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
We went out to several islands and slowly circumnavigated each, searching through the visible birds with binoculars from outside the boom placed to protect the islands. We went to some small, grassy islands with nesting Forster’s Terns, Laughing Gulls, and Tricolored Herons. We also went to an island that is completely covered in mangroves, full of Brown Pelicans, Great Egrets, and a few Roseate Spoonbills, Reddish Egrets, and Black-crowned Night-Herons. And we visited Queen Bess Island, one of the most important Brown Pelican rookeries, also full of Laughing Gulls, Royal Terns, spoonbills, Great and Snowy Egrets, and Tricolored Herons. We visited several of the islands three times that day, and saw how conditions differ between low and high tide, and how much can change between visits.
My greatest source of concern for something that can be managed was the inappropriate management of boom. A layer of hard boom to keep oil out surrounded each island, and a layer of absorbent boom was supposed to be inside this protective ring. We did see absorbent boom – heavily oiled, piled up on shores, tangled in mangroves, and wave-tossed deep into marshes. We also saw garbage bags full of oiled boom on some of the shores.
The soiled boom was acting as a convenient perch site for pelicans, gulls, terns, herons and egrets. It was a barrier between recently fledged birds and the land-water interface where they would begin to feed and bathe. It has, according to LDWF personnel, been oiled and on the islands for days to sometimes weeks. On these islands identified and prioritized as areas to be protected. They have reported this repeatedly to Joint Incident Command, to attempt to get contract workers to remove the oiled boom and replace it with clean boom. This is one source of oil that can be removed quickly and easily, with little disturbance to birds.
I saw fewer oiled birds than I expected based on reports, perhaps because many have been rescued in the past few days, and perhaps because visibility of birds changes over time. For example, at high tide, less habitat was visible, and the water was deeper where the islands met the water. Later, at low tide, foraging conditions may have been more optimal. Many more birds were foraging near the islands, and I saw more oiled birds, including Snowy Egrets, young Roseate Spoonbills, and a fairly heavily oiled Reddish Egret. Also, we circled Queen Bess Island on our first visit, and found a heavily oiled pelican only when we reached our initial starting point. Whether it moved to the edge of the island as we were going around, or somehow flew in, I will never know. But it was not there at 9:00 a.m., and was there and not very mobile at 9:30 a.m.
LDWF staff did rescue that pelican. One person had to walk on the island to gently herd the bird into the water, so that it would not escape into the interior of the island. As staff kept it away from the island, the boat captain carefully got the boat between the pelican and the land, so that it could be netted from the boat. One person quickly and expertly slid a net under the swimming bird, grabbed its bill to prevent it from biting, and lifted it into the boat.
The other person picked the bird up and put it in a crate, where it was well secured and shielded by a cloth cover to reduce its stress. We immediately took it to a dock, where it could be transported to a stabilization center. I was surprised, given how distressed the bird seemed, how mobile it still was. It was good to be able to catch it, but capture was not a certain outcome. And, in the process, many gulls and some pelicans and herons left their nests, exposing the eggs to heat and potentially to predators. In this disaster, all choices come with some risks.