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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Melanie Driscoll of Louisiana Coastal Intitiative - Bird Rescue Account

An Account on a Bird Rescue Mission from 
Melanie Driscoll of the Louisiana Coastal Intitiative

Melanie is the Director of Bird Conservation for National Audubon Society's Louisiana program at Louisiana Audubon Society. She has led a team that has identified 17 million acres of important habitat for birds, with a focus on Mississippi River and Gulf Coast sites.

Melanie Driscoll - Louisiana Audubon

Reading this account it is very easy to see why it is so hard to rescue these birds without doing more harm than good. But it seems like it's certainly worth the trouble to rescue even a few of these innocent victims of this man-made disaster.

Photo credit - Copyrighted
Bill Stripling

Bird rescue update from Queen Bess and other islands, from Saturday, June 12, 2010:

I went out into Barataria Bay Saturday with staff from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) to accompany them on their bird rescue work.  This opportunity allowed me to observe bird rescue efforts, to hear how they make their decisions about which birds to rescue, and to see the current conditions at some very important nesting colonies.

First, my strongest concerns lie with the lack of appropriate management of the booms.  Within the first week of the oil spill, LDWF personnel conducted aerial counts of nesting birds at all the colonies.  These species-level counts form the basis for prioritization of colonies for protection efforts such as booming and skimming of oil.  When oil came in over the booms later, the staff notified the appropriate people at Joint Incident Command so that the oiled boom could be removed and replaced by fresh absorbent boom at the highest priority sites, including Queen Bess Island.  Evidently, the oiled boom has been on the island, in the habitat, and near nests for a couple of weeks.  The lack of responsiveness has caused the field rescue team frustration and concern, and this was evident yesterday.  Birds, including recently fledged young of several species, have to get over or around oiled boom to get to the island/water interface to feed and bathe.  Oiled boom can be removed easily and quickly, with little disturbance to the birds.  It is distressing to see apparently clean birds perching on oiled boom, and to see it washed up in and around their nests.  Perhaps yesterday marked a turning point.  While we were making our second round of the islands, contractors were pulling oiled boom away from two of the more significant colonies under the supervision of LDWF.  I hope to hear that more prompt oiled boom removal becomes the norm.  Time will tell on that front.

The oiled bird situation I observed was not as bad as I believed based on reports that indicated that all birds on some islands were oiled. Of course, I did not visit every island, and may have missed an island with a much higher proportion of oiled birds.  While the situation is horrible to see and therefore may lead to alarming reports, many birds, both adults and young, remain completely or relatively clean.  The proportion of oiled birds on islands has likely decreased in the past week as many birds have been rescued.  Also, visibility of birds changes through time, as I explain below.

We did see numerous oiled birds of several species, predominantly Brown Pelicans.  There were some adults with all stages of oiling.  Some birds only showed traces of oil on the head, some had oiling on the breast and belly, and a few individuals were heavily oiled and appeared flightless, and therefore able to be captured.  There were also many oiled pelican chicks, some older and out of nests already, and some visible in nests at the edges of colonies.  We also saw oiled Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, Black-crowned Night-Herons, Tri-colored Herons, Royal and Forster's Terns, Laughing Gulls, Roseate Spoonbills, and Reddish Egrets.  Chicks of several of these species were showed signs of oiling, and some were quite heavily oiled.  Most of the chicks I could see were being fed by at least one parent.  Some, though, may succumb to heat or cold, toxicity, or sunburn.

Most of these birds, even oiled chicks, could not be captured.  I have heard fears that rescuers may be leaving oiled living and dead birds out in the habitat so that they will not be counted.  There is, given the nature of this as a human-caused disaster, some fear that there could be deception or a cover up of some of the evidence of damage.  And I cannot speak to this in most areas, but I can address it somewhat in terms of birds.  The deception appears to be more on the part of the birds themselves, and their biology and interactions with the habitat.

First, let me address some reasons that observers may be seeing heavily oiled birds and not seeing rescue personnel at least attempting to capture them.  We visited the same islands three different times yesterday, circumnavigating each island slowly at each visit, checking birds with binoculars each time.  On the first visit, I was relieved to see fewer oiled birds than I would have expected.  On the final visit, at low tide, there were more oiled birds visible.  I'm not sure of all the reasons for this, but it seemed that, as the tide went out, more birds came to the land-water interface to feed.  We saw young of several species foraging later in the day that had not been visible or active at all at high tide.  Also, at Queen Bess Island in the afternoon, there were 3 very heavily oiled pelicans that had not been visible at all earlier in the day.  They may have just come out to the edge of the colony, or may have come to the island from a different place.  At any rate, they had not been visible early in the day. Changes in the visibility and location of oiled birds could lead to the impression that oiled birds are being ignored or under-counted.

The staff of LDWF did launch a pirogue to attempt to capture the 3 heavily oiled pelicans in the afternoon.  The pelicans were sitting on the shore, holding their wings out as if to dry, preening steadily.  They appeared to be unable to fly, and thus less likely to escape capture. But, as the boat approached them, each in turn took off in labored flight and disappeared into a more interior part of the island.  Despite the appearance of being so heavily oiled as to be helpless and immobile, each evaded capture easily.  The more lightly oiled birds, those still flying around feeding their young, bathing, and foraging actively, would much more easily escape any rescue attempts.  Most of the oiled birds we saw that day are simply too mobile to be caught.

What of the helpless young still in the nests?   I saw one oiled and one non-oiled chick in each of several nests.  And there are chicks of various ages in close proximity to each other.  The natural response of flightless young to a threat is to jump from the nests and to scramble through sheltering vegetation.  But this normally protective response would put any chicks old enough to jump immediately into the oil that coats the marsh grasses and mangroves below their nests.  As the tides have come in and out, oil that washed over the booms coated the grass and mangrove stems, at least on the outer parts of the islands.  As tides rose and fell, the oil rose and fell with them, coating up to several feet of the stems.  Any escaping fledglings would be scrambling through these sticky, glistening, oiled stems.  Even fairly 'helpless' young birds are very difficult to capture, and habitat could be damaged in the attempt to catch them.  Any attempt to rescue one oiled chick would result in dozens of healthy chicks becoming oiled.  The same result would come from any attempt to get into the habitat, even to feed young whose parents have been oiled and rescued.

The habitats themselves can also be deceptive.  Bird Island #2 is mostly mangroves without any beach front on which to land a boat or drop a person.  The mangroves are thick, and the bases are oiled.  Rescue attempts on this island have almost all failed, because adults can simply rise off the nests above researchers, and all birds can move into thick vegetation, where they can maneuver much more effectively than humans.  The grassy islands are difficult to move quickly on without damaging vegetation or stepping into the nests of ground-nesting birds.  The islands with some beach are coated in oil, and also house many ground-nesting birds.  A decision to get onto these islands to help birds would effectively be a decision to capture all chicks, gather all eggs, and to push all adults off the islands for the duration of the capture. Even these adults might end up stressed or escaping into oil.  Given that only a small proportion, maybe 1% to 5% of birds, were visibly oiled, this seems a poor choice for the colony.

The decision to not rescue birds, to not pull chicks from islands or nests, could change for any site on any day.  There is a colony of Royal Terns near the water at Queen Bess Island, and many of the chicks are oiled, some heavily.  Without encroaching and disturbing the colony, it is difficult to tell how many nests may not have hatched yet.  Any day, a decision could be made to send several rescuers in with nets to capture as many of the chicks as they can capture.  This would certainly be very stressful for the chicks and the adults, and would require hand-rearing the chicks, who might then imprint on humans.  However, when the benefit to the colony is greater than the threat, this option will be exercised.  If this rescue is attempted, I expect that it will be carefully planned, will occur in the morning before the heat causes undue stress on the birds, and will likely involve a lot of personnel to reduce capture time and stress on birds.

We did rescue one heavily oiled pelican from Queen Bess Island.  This bird was not visible to us when we first reached the boom around the island, but was there when we finished our circuit.  We eased the boat nearer to the oiled pelican, which eyed us warily but allowed a fairly close approach.  An LDWF staff person got into the water to approach the pelican.  The idea was to either net the pelican where it sat or, if it moved, to send it toward the water, away from the rest of the nest colony.  But, the pelican had other ideas.  It moved farther into the colony within the Laughing Gull and Tri-colored Heron nests.  The rescuer had to walk between nests carefully, pushing dozens of birds off their nests, to herd the pelican toward the water.  This was successful, and it swam to another place on the island and climbed laboriously onto land.  From here, the pelican was again herded gently toward water, and then we had to use the boat to herd the pelican away from the colony.  At this point, the captain drove close enough to the pelican for LDWF staff to scoop it up in a net, grab the bill to prevent it from biting, and then to gently hoist the bird into the boat, where it was carefully transferred to a crate.  It was closed in, and a cover was put across much of the front of the crate to give it a safe, hidden place to rest for transport.  The GPS location and time of capture was noted and we headed in to drop it off at the Grand Isle dock.  I watched the transfer to the land transport team, and the bird was handled gently and carefully throughout the transfer.

Another concern expressed to me has been that rescuers are not attempting to clean any oil off of heavily oiled birds before they are transported.  These birds are dehydrated, severely stressed, and out in the heat and sun, unable to adequately thermoregulate.  Previous rescue experience and research has shown that birds have the best chance of surviving rescue if they are stabilized quickly in a temperature controlled environment, hydrated, fed, and given treatment for any internal oiling. The external oil looks terrible, but dealing with it immediately in the heat is more harmful than quickly moving birds into a stabilization situation.

I am sorry that I cannot tell you that it is possible to save all of these birds.  For some, when they are so oiled as to be incapable of flight, we can save them, at least for a while.  But, for many, there is no way to help them without putting many more at risk.  These are very difficult decisions, made by experienced individuals every day.  There are choices that must be made between individuals versus species, oiled chicks versus not-yet oiled chicks.  This is a waiting game, often, for people who are often helpless observers, occasionally heroic rescuers.  There are many reasons to be angry and suspicious, and many injustices to fight in this spill. Pushing to get absorbent boom replaced as soon as it is oiled, especially around these sensitive natural resources, is a good fight. But the bird rescue is a waiting game, and a series of impossible decisions.  I am relieved to have seen so many white birds, so many naturally brown birds, and so few that were yellow, orange, and black with oil.  But, more birds will be oiled, and more difficult decisions will have to be made. For most colonies, at least the ones I've seen, the best decision right now is to interfere as little as possible.  I know that individual birds are suffering, and this is intolerable.  But destroying nest success entirely, trying to hand-rear thousands of chicks, causing more to be oiled and stressed, causing more to die, is also intolerable.  Yesterday, I would not have made any decisions differently.

Kind regards,


Melanie Driscoll

Director of Bird Conservation
Louisiana Coastal Initiative
6160 Perkins Road
Baton Rouge, LA 70808
work:  225-768-2495
cell:    225-938-7209>

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