Bird conservationists fear the spreading Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will affect not only local birdlife but migratory bird populations as far north as Alaska, and as far south as South America. The spill, now 100 miles long by 48 miles wide, is being pushed onshore by the prevailing southeast winds and is expected to hit the Louisiana’s Chandeleur Islands imminently.
The state bird of Louisiana, the brown pelican, removed from the US Endangered Species list only late last year, nests on the coastal islands of Breton National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses the Chandeleur Islands. Their breeding season just began and many pairs are already incubating eggs.
“This spill spells disaster for birds in this region and beyond,” says George Fenwick, president of the nonprofit American Bird Conservancy. “The complexity of the Gulf coastline, with numerous bays, estuaries, inlets, marshes and creeks, will make cleanup extremely difficult. Impacts could last for decades for much of the habitat, and some species may suffer significant long-term population declines.”
The oil spill is fed by oil gushing at the rate of 5,000 barrels a day from a broken wellhead on the sea floor about 51 miles southeast of Venice, La. The pipe was left uncapped by the fiery explosion and sinking of the oil rig Deepwater Horizon last week, in which 11 crewmembers lost their lives. Now lying on the sea floor 1,500 feet from the wellhead, the rig is owned by the Swiss company Transocean and was leased by BP Exploration and Production.
BP as well as federal and state agencies are deploying skimmers and chemical dispersants in an attempt to control the oil spill, but on April 30 it reached the Louisiana wetlands at the tip of the Mississippi Delta.
“The terrible loss of 11 workers may be just the beginning of this tragedy as the oil slick spreads toward sensitive coastal areas vital to birds and marine life and to all the communities that depend on them,” said Melanie Driscoll, a conservation director with the National Audubon Society, who is monitoring the situation from her base in Louisiana.
“For birds, the timing could not be worse; they are breeding, nesting and especially vulnerable in many of the places where the oil could come ashore,” she said.
The Gulf Coast is important for hundreds of species of migratory birds, which breed, winter, and rest here during migration. The second Sunday in May is celebrated as International Migratory Bird Day, but this year there will be nothing to celebrate.
“It is ironic that next weekend is International Migratory Bird Day,” said Fenwick. “At a time when we should be celebrating the beauty and wonder of migratory birds, we could be mourning the worst environmental disaster in recent US history.”
All coastal nesting species–herons, terns, skimmers, plovers, gulls, rails and ducks–are now present on the Gulf coast, including several species on the US WatchList of birds of conservation concern.
Many North American summer songbirds fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico twice each year between their nesting grounds and wintering areas in Latin America. Most of the spring migrants, such as warblers, orioles, buntings, flycatchers and swallows, move across the gulf during a two-week period from late April to early May.
Songbirds, not normally directly affected by oil spills, could be harmed by smoke from the burning oil set aflame in an attempt to minimize damage to marine life.
“Millions of our songbirds are crossing the Gulf now, and will arrive stateside perilously weak and undernourished from their journey,” said Fenwick. “The smoke may well compound their precarious situation and potentially lead to birds failing to make it to shore, or arriving so weakened that they are unable to survive.”
The impact to all these bird species depends on how long the leak lasts and what happens with weather and currents. The leak could persist for weeks or months, and end up being the worst environmental disaster in US history, bird conservationists fear.
Sites designated as Globally Important Bird Areas by the American Bird Conservancy are directly in the path of the spill. Ten sites at most immediate risk are:
Gulf Coast Least Tern Colony, one of the world’s largest colonies of the threatened least tern.
Pascagoula River Coastal Preserve, coastal marshes at the mouth of the river support yellow and black rails, snowy plovers, and endangered wintering piping plovers.
Gulf Islands National Seashore, which hosts thousands of wintering shorebirds, including endangered piping plover, Wilson’s plover, and American oystercatcher, as well as brown pelican, black-crowned night-heron, white ibis, and black skimmer.
Breton National Wildlife Refuge, including the Chandeleur Islands, the largest tern colony in North America, as well as an important wintering area for magnificent frigatebird, and stopover site for redhead and lesser scaup
Dauphin Island, an important stopover site for migrant birds including shorebirds, gulls, terns, herons, and rails.
Fort Morgan Historical Park, also an important stopover site for migrant birds including shorebirds, gulls, terns, herons, and rails.
Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, a satopover for thousands of trans-Gulf migrants.
Eglin Air Force Base, a significant coastal habitat for shorebirds and wading birds.
Delta National Wildlife Refuge, nesting area for large numbers of wading birds, including white ibis, snowy egrets, and herons; thousands of shorebirds use the mudflats in winter and during migration, including dunlin, long-billed dowitcher, and western sandpiper, as well as the endangered piping plover.
Baptiste Collette Bird Islands, an artificial barrier created from dredge spoil, and now habitat for the Caspian tern, brown pelican, gull-billed tern, and black skimmer.
“It is unfortunate that it takes a potential disaster to remind the nation of the risks involved with our addiction to oil,” said Audubon legislative director Mike Daulton. “This spill would give anyone pause regarding the pursuit of risky drilling in environmentally sensitive coastal areas. For the long term, we need to move as quickly as possible from the addiction to fossil fuels to the promise of clean, renewable energy.”
“Although we are encouraged by the White House announcement that no new areas will be opened up to drilling until this spill has been fully investigated, Shell has announced plans to move forward with drilling in the Arctic, an area just as ecologically fragile as the Gulf, and where cleanup technology doesn’t even exist,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife and former director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
“It is time for President Obama to reinstate the moratorium on all drilling off of US shores, ensuring that we can deal with the situation at hand without opening another part of our country up to similar disaster,” said Clark. “Hopefully this catastrophe will be a wake-up call for Congress to pass comprehensive climate change legislation that moves us beyond drilling along our fragile coastline and towards a cleaner greener energy future.” (Environment News Service, April 30)
See our last posts on the politics of oil spills.