Louisiana report: Oiled mangroves and the birds within (slideshow)

By Hugh Powell
June 29, 2010

On Saturday we visited a few small mangrove islands in Bay Ronquille, south of Bay Jimmy, the place where thick oil in the saltmarsh grasses made the news early last week. Looking at a map, it must have been that same pulse of oil that washed over these islands. The worst part was seeing how the oil was slowly covering the several hundred pairs of wading birds and their chicks.

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There was a saddening orderliness to the oiling here. Just like at the healthy rookery we saw at the Iron Banks, clean pelicans, egrets, spoonbills, ibises, and herons nested high among the broad leathery mangrove leaves. Hundreds of white-and-gray pelican chicks cast their prehistoric gaze over the bay, beside rusty-necked young Tricolored Herons and proud Great Egrets.

But nearly every bird down at the water’s edge was oiled. We saw at least 70 spoonbill chicks tinged bronzy orange and struggled to find any that were pink. Young Black-crowned Night-Herons were so stained that all but their yellow eyes vanished among the mangrove roots.

Oil coated 18 inches of saltmarsh grass and mangrove roots all the way across the narrow island. The oil seemed to have arrived on the high tide and then retreated, because there was a strip of unoiled mud and roots exposed beneath the heavy oil layer. All of these islands had been boomed, and the oil had just stained the booms brown on its way in.

The oil was at an awful height. As adults and young just out of the nest sidled through the oily mess, they picked it up on their shoulders and spread it yet more evenly as they preened. Birds that wandered into the dark interior of the island, seeking shade among the oily roots, just made matters worse.

Spoonbill chicks and White Ibises forage by probing in the mud, and thick brown stains on their bills suggested they had stirred up (and likely ingested) oil from the sediment. Egrets had every staining possibility imaginable. Some were white above with a thick, root-beer-colored “waterline” stain along their bellies. Others had covered their entire neck down to their shoulders. A few had just a thin ring around the neck, as if from sweeping through a small clump of oil while snatching at a fish.

As we circled each island, counting the damage, I couldn’t even find much relief in looking at the clean chicks higher in the trees. All too soon, these will clamber out of their nests and stand along the water’s edge, rubbing shoulders with the oil.

Sadly, rescuing these birds could do more harm than good. Though they’re undoubtedly being harmed by oil—compromising their feathers’ insulation and waterproofing, and suffering from oil ingestion—they’re still quite mobile and difficult to catch. Storming the island to rescue the oiled birds would frighten the healthy birds, possibly losing nests or stampeding clean birds into oily vegetation. And the sheer numbers of young birds needing help raises the practical question of how to save them without separating them from the parents they still need.

Yet all of these adults and many of the young can fly. It seemed nonsensical that these poor birds would continue to poke around their one grubby island, slowly making matters worse, when so many clean islands are available with just a short flight across the bay. I came almost to resent the egrets standing under their canopy of oiled roots, for being in the middle of a problem they simply didn’t recognize.

Perhaps this is why we watch birds, though; why we study the natural world at all. What other creature finds itself trapped in an oil-stained world, and chooses to walk in the same circles around the heart of the problem? When cleaner alternatives are already on the horizon, and only seem a bit too far away.

UPDATE: I contacted Michael Seymour, ornithologist for the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries, to ask him about the state’s protocols for rescuing birds in colonies. He gave me a detailed response, which I’ve excerpted here for any readers wondering about rescue efforts in these difficult situations:

Our standard operating procedure states that “If the percentage of the colony oiled exceeds 50%, a team of at least three highly qualified biologists (ornithologists, species specific managers, etc.) from LDWF and USFWS will collaborate and develop a unified decision and protocol to remove the birds.”  Fortunately, we have not reached oiling to this degree in any colony. It is never an easy decision nor is it taken lightly when we have to leave an oil impacted bird at a colony due to this disturbance issue.  I share yours and others’ concern regarding the oil impacts at Bird Island # 2 (which I believe others are referring to as Cat Island). In addition to the colony disturbance, it was determined very early on that attempting to catch those oil impacted spoonbill chicks (and others) was greatly hindered by the structure of the mangroves themselves – namely that those same roots that are likely smearing oil on birds as they run through the island, act as significant barriers to human movement.  That issue combined with disturbance means that the majority of birds rescued from that island must either be in the water (e.g., Brown Pelicans) or at an edge that is accessible and away from the colony – obviously a flighted bird adds to the difficulty!

Images by Benjamin Clock except #4 by Hugh Powell.


  • Bob Powell

    Bravo, Hugh!

  • Those photos are fantastic. It’s terrible to think that all these oil spills are avoidable. Thanks for the great food-for-thought!

  • liz visick

    This report goes straight to the heart and then, with a swift flick of your ‘pen’, delivers a hefty blow to the brain. Thank you for giving us exactly what we need.

  • greg

    great photos but I hope after the photos are taken that you ARE TRYING TO SAVE THESE BIRDS or call some one who will.There are many wildlife rehabbers arriving.Those juvenile Roseate spoonbills should be light pink/mostly white and that photo makes me SICK.

    I live on Gulf coast and I am waiting oil to hit us

  • Bridget

    Thanks for the images, though they are haunting.

    What kind of help is possible or the birds in the gulf? Is Cornell down there doing rescues also?

  • Matt

    My friends and I traveled up to la. when we realized what was going on.It was around memorial day.We have boats, nets and 2 people who band birds.We don’t have too much experience with oil but we were going to work with a rescue sanctuary.Most of us are birders and all of us know how to walk thru an estuary/marsh.We are all from florida so we know the marshes can be dangerous.We WERE NOT LOOKING FOR MONEY.WE love wildlife and we wanted to help BUT WE WERE DENIED ACCESS BY THE COAST GUARD/BP who stated the marshes were CLOSED.

    IT is hard watching a place you love DIE.It will be DECADES before the Gulf recovers.I also feel bad for all those people who dedicated their lives and are no longer with us that worked so hard for the past 40 years to preserve the Gulf.

    Reddish Egrets,Brown Pelicans,Snowy Egrets,Least Terns just to name a few have rebounded to numbers where they are no longer rare.It will be a race against time to figure out what species will CRASH like the Red Knot and try to figure out a solution.

    The whole situation makes us sick to our stomachs and we don’t think we will see the pristine aqua blue-green Gulf again but maybe our grandchildren will.

    Matt from St Pete

  • Hugh

    Thanks for your comment – I’ve added a few words from Michael Seymour, a state wildlife biologist, clarifying how difficult it is to rescue oiled birds in colonies without endangering healthy birds. The biologists definitely know about this colony already and are closely monitoring the situation. They don’t want to attempt a rescue if it will harm more birds than it will help.

  • Hugh

    Hi Bridget. As mentioned in the post, it’s very difficult to help these birds that are still mobile and associating with healthy, unoiled birds. Cornell is not rescuing birds—that’s not our area of expertise. We are documenting the situation and preparing for long-term study and recovery of the Gulf ecosystem—which we believe is the major concern in this whole tragedy. – Hugh

  • Brian

    With all the bad news about the oil spill I thought I would report some goods news.

    While birding at Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge/Cape Canaveral Seashore near Titusville Florida on the Atlantic Coast side we saw 18 Reddish Egrets.This is the most we have EVER seen in this area.Reddish Egrets are a coastal species and will be affected by the oil spill.

    Brian From St pete Florida…

  • Hugh

    Thanks Brian! Good news is always welcome. – Hugh

  • Thanks for a VERY well written post Hugh. While I agree with everything written about rescuing birds in colonies here, what is left out is that there are many other islands that differ structurally than “cat” island referred to here, and that LDWF and USFWS were actively rescuing birds on those islands until large numbers of Royal Terns and other species became oiled in early July. Those birds at the time were largely unflighted, and quite rescuable. As you can see from your very own photos of Raccoon island, making landfall did NOT disturb the colony, and perhaps from the USFWS’ own photos shown on the deepwater response website on the USFWS page explaining the NRDAR process, (can’t link to this site)which shows photos of Brown Pelicans and Royal Terns nesting during the spill response, both taken from the island in Breton National Wildlife Refuge. OK to land and take photos, but not to save birds?? Weird thought process, especially when MANY researchers routinely capture and study birds on these islands. Maybe there are other issues worth exploring?

  • Hugh

    Thanks for the response Drew. I didn’t get to go to Raccoon myself, but from experiences on places like the skimmer colony on the east tip of Bastian Island I know how hard it is to get close to some of these seabirds. (I’m not sure if you were suggesting we should have rescued birds ourselves, so just to be clear about the Cornell Lab’s role: we were never part of rescue or rehab operations because we don’t have expertise in that area.)

    I bet you’re right – it would have been possible to capture some of those oiled but mobile birds given enough workers and time. But among those other issues you mention is the unknown fates of lightly oiled birds vs the unknown fates of chased, captured, transported, and released birds as well as the unknown prospects for pre-fledged birds released without parents to care for and train them. For example, many terns (Caspians are famous for it) have very long post-fledging dependency periods while the young learn how to fish. Anyway, I think your concern and questions are justified, and you’ve certainly proven your own dedication to the cause. But it comes down to very hard decisions being made by people at LDWF and FWS who also genuinely care about the seabirds they’re responsible for. As for me, I’ll make sure we continue to report on the science surrounding restoration, recovery and monitoring. Again, thanks for writing. Hugh