Yesterday, I wrote about tagging along with a NOAA crew as they searched for subsurface oil. The next day, I joined the Fish and Wildlife Service on an expedition with a much more easily visible goal: Checking out the breeding colonies of seabirds that have laid their nests near waters affected by the oil spill.
Nearly 1800 oiled birds have been recovered by rescue teams, and more than a thousand of those were already dead. The majority of the live birds go to Jay Holcomb's bird rescue center. Of course, the Gulf of Mexico is an enormous area, and it's only in recent weeks that a significant number of oiled birds have even been seen – meaning that in the two months since the Deepwater Horizon started gushing oil, there have probably been many more birds affected that we'll never know about.
"This is the tip of the iceberg, what we're bringing in," said Steve Martarano, a public affairs officer with FWS who organized the boat trip to visit the nesting birds. "But we're saving a lot of birds."
Now, according to FWS biologist Terry Adelsbach, who joined us on the water, the number of oiled birds seems to have peaked. The crews spend most of their time checking on the breeding populations and changing out dirty booms to ensure that the birds and their chicks remain oil-free.
We crossed Barataria Bay in a speedboat helmed by Captain Lou, a local marina owner who normally would be taking recreational fishermen out to hunt snapper, king mackerel or tuna. (Lou's personal best catch was a 130-lb. yellowfin tuna.) Also on our boat was a local New Orleans Fox news crew and Pulitzer-nominated photojournalist Alan Chin, whose incredible Gulf photos can be seen here.
Our first stop was Queen Bess Island, one of the first places where brown pelicans were reintroduced after DDT decimated their population in the last century. On any other day, the clusters of pelicans and their cottonball chicks would be an inspirational sight. Cordoned off by orange and white booms surrounding the island, however, they seemed imperiled – and the booms a fragile protection at best.
While brown gobs of oil could occasionally be seen in the water, the birds seemed healthy and unaffected. The island gave off the pungent scent of guano. Adelsbach peered through binoculars, but couldn't spot any birds with serious oiling.
Next, we visited Bird Island II, a mangrove patch in the bay even more densely packed with nesting pelicans, terns and roseate spoonbills. The spoonbills are loudly-colored birds that would normally have chicks that are faintly pink and white – but here, the chicks were a sickly taupe color, covered with a film of oil.
Adelsbach explained that the trauma of removing the chicks to be cleaned would be worse than waiting for the young birds to fledge out their baby feathers, naturally removing the oil. Looking at the chicks hopping after their parents and cawing for attention and food, it was true that they didn't appear badly affected by the discoloration.