Louisiana report: A hundred thousand seabirds (slideshow)

Text by Hugh Powell. Images by Benjamin Clock.
June 28, 2010

On Friday we visited the magnificent seabird colonies of Breton Island, home to some 100,000 terns, pelicans, and gulls. After witnessing some heavily oiled mangrove islands the day before (more on this in a later post), it was a relief to see such a vibrant spectacle with little sign of oil.

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Breton National Wildlife Refuge is a collection of barrier islands off of eastern Louisiana (map). It contains the pristine Chandeleur Islands, one of the first places oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster came ashore. Breton Island itself is one of the largest seabird colonies in the nation. Coastal Louisiana is home to about three-quarters of the nation’s Sandwich Terns, and most of them breed here on Breton, alongside around 15,000 Royal Tern pairs, 6,000 pelican pairs, and thousands more Laughing Gulls.

Amid the constant coming-and-going of terns, the gull cries and the tern shrieks, and the smell of thousands upon thousands of fishy meals, all I could think of was John Steinbeck’s description of Cannery Row: “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light….”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has made special efforts to protect Breton from oil. In addition to the orange containment boom and white absorbent boom we’ve seen everywhere, taller black Navy boom had been installed. Workers patrol the rings of boom each day to check they stay in place and to fix any gaps. Shrimp boats that had been turned into oil skimmers were on guard nearby, perhaps in anticipation of weather from Tropical Storm Alex.

Amid so much uncertainty about where oil will hit and what it will do to the Gulf Coast ecosystem, it was a comfort to stand at the edge of Breton’s chaos. In the early morning light the heavy pelicans carved dark circles above the island, and a confetti of silvery terns drifted over them. If even a few places like Breton can be preserved, then hope still exists that seabirds will survive this.

That, of course, is the definition of a refuge, and it’s exactly what Theodore Roosevelt had in mind when he created the National Wildlife Refuge system. In a satisfying show of foresight, Breton was the nation’s second one to be designated.

Thanks to senior biologist James Harris and assistant refuge manager Drew Wirwa for allowing us to visit and for accompanying us.