Audubon Oil Spill Response Team Update: What does a bird conservation director do?

Audubon Oil Spill Response Team Update: What does a bird conservation director do?

Melanie Driscoll
Published: 07/16/2010

Black Skimmers interact in midair
Black Skimmers interact in mid-air. Melanie Driscoll/Audubon

What does an Audubon bird conservation director do during an oil spill? No two days are the same; here's a glimpse of the last three:

Tuesday, July 13, 10:00 a.m. I just reminded Paul Kemp (vice president of the Louisiana Coastal Initiative) that we need to identify some island-building science resources for Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser. When I ran into him a few days ago at Myrtle Grove, he said that he wants to take some of the money that has come in and build an island, and he wants to do it right, so that it creates good bird habitat. He asked if Audubon could help. I assured him that we could.

Paul and I called Woody Gagliano, a coastal scientist with years of experience working on coastal restoration. When we explained our mission, Woody said he is working on a similar project in adjacent St. Bernard Parish, and he would be happy to help in Plaquemines Parish. We discussed project design and next steps, and Woody promised to send a brief outline within a couple of days. I then spoke with P.J. Hahn, the director of coastal zone management for Plaquemines Parish. He expressed excitement about working with Audubon to create good bird habitat in an ecologically sound way. He asked me why some new islands are not used by birds, and I related it to people moving back to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Until you know you will have neighbors, a neighborhood does not seem safe. I assured him that we could help make the habitat enticing to birds.

Tuesday, 4:00 p.m. I talked with Natalie Snider, one of our partners at Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. We discussed creating oyster reef islands.  The Black Skimmers would love them – a place to loaf, court, and raise their young. We also talked about project costs – it could take anywhere from $100,000 to $4 million to create an island. Paul and I have some funding ideas. Scientists are on board and excited. Paul wrote a brief project proposal. I need to set up a meeting to move this idea forward early next week.

Wednesday, July 14, 4:15 a.m. Leaving home to meet a captain to conduct oiled bird surveys in Barataria Bay.

Wednesday, 6:45 a.m. After a brief delay, left Myrtle Grove Marina to survey islands and birds in Barataria Bay. I noted several things at the first couple of islands. Marsh grass that has been oiled for a while is yellowing. We hope that as this stressed marsh grass dies back, the roots are still unaffected and will produce new grass shoots, but as with many oil spill issues, it is too early to tell what the ultimate outcome will be. Once marsh grass is oiled, there's no way to clean it. Oiled sorbent boom was piled up in the habitat on the first small grassy island I observed. Took location notes and photos, and must report the boom management issue to Joint Incident Command.

Wednesday, 8:40 a.m. In the Cat Island chain, found the mangrove island looking better than on my last visit. Several Great Egrets were very oiled, but still flight-capable, and therefore not likely to be caught. While several Brown Pelicans were also oiled, there were over 2,000 adults and fledglings, and over 99% of them looked clean and healthy. The fledglings are getting very big and are increasingly active.

Wednesday, 9:10 a.m. On a small grassy island, few birds were visible. On closer inspection, though, the marsh grass was dotted liberally with heron heads – heads of Tricolored Herons, to be precise. Throughout my surveys of these islands, I’ve found most of these ‘Louisiana’ Herons to be largely free of oil. I wonder what their secret it. I wish I could convey it to all of the herons and egrets.

Near one large patch of heavily oiled marsh grass rests a lump that's difficult to identify. It moves slightly, and from a position away from the boom surrounding the island, appears to be a heavily oiled bird preening. More observation tells me that it must be a night-heron, though it is difficult to be certain. I call the Oiled Wildlife Hotline, which I am aware is now operating out of JIC in Houma, La. Voicemail. I leave a brief message with my name, the bird species, location, and my phone number. I am surprised about three minutes later when a professional-sounding female returns my call, greets me by name, and asks me if I can give her the GPS coordinates of the night-heron. I comply, and she calmly repeats them back to me. She confirms the species identification and tells me that a wildlife biologist will call me back in a few minutes. That call comes, we confirm the information, and he says he will call me if he has more questions. He calls again, pinpoints the location, and tells me he is dispatching a rescue team. He has located the island on a map, describes it to me, and it is the correct location. The rescue team calls me a few minutes later, asks for more location details, then tell me they have located the bird and are about to rescue it.

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