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.


  • Mary Mehaffey

    Thanks so much for the slide show and info about Breton Island. I live north of New Orleans and visited the island 5/2002 as a “thank you” from the LA Wildlife and Fisheries for my help in their Red-cockaded Woodpecker breeding study. It was an incredible sight of thousands of breeding seabirds. We are all heart sick about this oil disaster and glad to see all is not lost. Currently I am doing bird surveys for the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain (north of New Orleans) and on the Waveland, MS beach to do my part to help (entering into ebird). Thanks again for your report and for everyone’s concern.

    Mary Mehaffey

  • Andreas Pohlmann

    I just wonder where the seabirds are going to feed ? Will they fly in land?will they fish in areas with no or little oil? How well can the birds determine if the oil is in a given area?Or will they abandon thier nests and fly to another less contaminated coastal region ?

  • Hugh

    Hi – these are all good questions. At the moment we’ve been encouraged to see very few terns and gulls overall with oil on them. During the breeding season these birds tend to forage close to shore, so they may be escaping oil simply because most of the oil has stayed fairly far offshore. Only Forster’s Terns and Gull-billed Terns seem to spend much time foraging over marshes. We don’t have any data about whether terns actually avoid oily waters when fishing. Obviously if they can’t see fish beneath the oil, they are unlikely to dive into it, though they might dive at fish through sheen. Small floating slicks can look a lot like floating mats of Sargassum seaweed, which typically harbors a variety of fish and crabs and attracts other fish to feed beneath it. This might encourage seabirds, especially pelicans, to dive. We’re also concerned that as hurricane season progresses, more oil may be driven onshore.

  • Melissa

    Thank you Mary for watching out for our beautiful feathered friends here on the Gulf Coast. I’m in Mobile, Alabama.

  • Melissa

    I wish there were a way to divert the birds away from the oil. How are the Brown Pelicans doing?

Louisiana report: A hundred thousand seabirds (slideshow)