Galveston Bay Oil Spill: Resources From the Cornell Lab

March 29, 2014
A 2011 photo of American White Pelicans, American Avocets, Laughing Gulls, Willets, and other shorebirds at Bolivar Flats, Texas. By Bill and Mavis T via Birdshare .

As with the timing of the Deepwater Horizon disaster four years ago, this week’s oil spill in Galveston Bay comes at just about the worst time of year for the ecologically important Texas Gulf Coast. Thousands of wintering waterbirds throng the coastline, and thousands more migrants are due to arrive in the coming days. The spill happened immediately adjacent to Bolivar Flats, a renowned birding spot; the oil has been swept southward along the coast and has begun washing ashore on unspoiled Matagorda Island.

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This spill will be far smaller than the Deepwater Horizon spill, although its proximity to shore means the oil immediately threatens birds in the area. The ruptured barge in Galveston Bay contained nearly 1 million gallons of oil; so far it has discharged about 168,000 gallons (the contents of one of the ship’s holds). For reference the Deepwater Horizon spill released an estimated 210 million gallons and the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 involved 11 million gallons.

Thousands of avocets, sandpipers, pelicans, gulls, terns, herons, and ducks are in the vicinity of the oil slick. You can use our eBird Locations tool to see recently reported species and numbers. Oiled birds are being seen, and at least 37 bird deaths have been reported as of March 28, 2014. As we watch the situation develop, here are some additional sources of information.

  • What’s happening now? Houston Audubon has an oil spill page with updates on current conditions. The Galveston Bay Foundation is coordinating with the Coast Guard to involve a group of pre-registered volunteers to help with cleanup. Texas City “Y” Response is the official area command response information site with updated information and pictures. Wildlife response and rehabilitation is being coordinated by Wildlife Response Services.
  • What can be done about the oil? Our Oil Spill FAQ page was compiled during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and contains answers to many basic questions about birds, oil, and wildlife rehabilitation.
  • Which birds are in danger? Our BirdCast regional forecasts provide weekly updates about which species are likely to be moving through the Texas Gulf Coast. For the coming week (Mar 28–Apr 4), waterfowl on the move in the region include Gadwall, Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead, and Least Tern. You can also see recent sightings lists with our eBird Locations tool.
  • What can I do if I’m in the area? If you see an oiled bird, you can report the degree of oiling on an eBird checklist. To do this, check “Other” on the Location, Date, and Effort page and then choose “Oiled Birds” from the drop-down list. The American Birding Association blog also encourages birders to do this, and has a commentary on why those counts are crucial for the political aftermath of the spill.


  • Laurella Desborough

    So what is being done right now to clean up this oil and protect these wading birds?

  • Hugh

    Hi Laurella – the Galveston Bay Foundation and Houston Audubon are providing updates on current conditions. Galveston Bay Foundation is coordinating a group of pre-registered volunteers to respond to the spill—we’ve just added a link (above) to the Galveston Bay Foundation to help you find information there. Thanks for the comment. – Hugh

  • Regina

    When these oil spills occur, it is always the volunteer groups who have to save the birds. Why isn’t the government fining the oil companies and making them pay for the error of their ways? The government recently fined Toyota for concealing the problems with their cars, but the oil companies get away with murder of a different kind. Not only are the birds and other wildlife affected by these oil spills, but humans are as well. We do not know what the ultimate affect will be down the road by exposure to the oil, in addition to all the chemicals that leach into the various bodies of water in which the birds and wildlife feed and humans swim. The cumulative affect of all this exposure may cause cancers, but because that is difficult to prove, the oil and chemical companies literally get away with murder.

  • Regina dotson

    It seems that by definition, most birders are also conservationists, and as such we want the richest Eco-systems possible. Many of us also put our dollars to work in supporting a sustainable environment. I find blaming”big oil” a bit to easy. I buy many products that are made from big oil. All the plastics, many food products, clothing and containers are consumed by those that condemn big oil. Maybe Al Gore was right. Add a 5$ tax to gas and see how quickly we really can ALL help the environment.

  • Thank you for the update.