Slideshow: Life as usual—and oil’s effects—evident on Louisiana coast

Text by Hugh Powell. Images by Benjamin Clock.
June 9, 2010

NOTE: More news and resources are being compiled here

Last week we sent down a small team of biologist-videographers to the Louisiana coast. Our goal is to gather video that will help us provide biologically relevant insight to the BP oil spill’s effects on birds.

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Our team—Marc Dantzker, Ben Clock, and Larry Arbanas—are also there to record the still-undisturbed natural history of the Mississippi Delta’s  hundreds of bird species, as part of a baseline against which oil’s effects can be viewed in coming years. Most of the pictures in the slideshow above are of unaffected birds going about their normal, marvelous lives. A few photos show oiled birds and may be unsettling to some viewers.

I talked to the team today just as they were returning from the saltmarshes of Barataria Bay (look for a post on this tomorrow). They told me about their two visits to Grande Terre Island on June 2 and June 5. The pulse of oil that on June 5 washed past protective booms and onto shore severely coated pelicans and affected other gulls, terns, and shorebirds—on a beach that had been mostly clean of oil just three days earlier.

Marc said the scene was distressing in the magnitude of its effects in a localized area. This was a fairly small slick compared to the hundreds of thousands of barrels still offshore, yet it totally overwhelmed the protective boom and birds in its path.

When the team first arrived June 2, cleanup efforts from a previous oiling had been largely successful. According to Ben, only scattered oily stains remained on the sand, almost like on a garage floor. The team photographed a few oiled birds, including a Sanderling, but most flocks were clean and unaffected. Just off the beach, Brown Pelicans floated inside the boom line in apparent safety.

Then came Saturday morning. Just after sunrise, the team returned by boat to the same landing spot on the north (protected) side of the island. They found oily water and filmed an adult and a young dolphin swimming through it.

“On shore,” Ben said, “it was clear things were different right from the moment we landed. There was now oil everywhere, and we saw affected birds immediately. Laughing Gulls started coming in, more and more with oil, and one really, really covered. We started seeing a wider diversity of birds affected, albeit with smaller amounts of oil. Royal Terns and Sandwich Terns with swatches of oil on their white plumage. These terns are obligate fish eaters, and they’re just diving into the water where there are tiny little dollops of water everywhere.” A graceful Black-necked Stilt wading in a pool also had oil on it, Marc said.

Rounding the tip of the island, the Gulf shore came into view. Large puddles of oil lay high up the beach, stranded by the previous high tide. “Where before we had seen patches of oil on the sand, now we were seeing patches of sand showing through the oil,” Marc told me. Farther down the beach, strings of boom were stranded along with the oil, having been overcome by high surf driven by strong onshore winds.

The first really bad pelican was sitting in this oil, wings folded. It was completely covered in a thin layer of oil. Heavy, oily feathers hung away from its body, matted together but still individually visible. The team called the bird rescue hotline and started documenting the bird.

At the time, Ben said, this bird looked about as bad as he could imagine a bird looking, but the second pelican they found was worse. It was mired in oil the consistency of molasses or paste. This bird had been swept high up the beach, as if it had been caught in the slick while out at sea and washed ashore like driftwood.

Only the bird’s eye was clear, Marc said. “It was like it was frozen inside the oil. You could really see the desperation in the eye of this bird as it blinked and tried to move its head.” Ninety minutes after the call, a rescue team arrived by boat. They quickly collected the pelicans and set off immediately to get them to the rescue center in Fort Jackson.

The number of birds the team saw affected by this overnight oiling was small—in the dozens, Marc told me. But even this consolation seemed temporary. Out to sea, as long ago as May 27, even the most conservative estimates put the slick’s size at some 130,000 barrels (5.46 million gallons), after accounting for how much had already evaporated, burned off, or been dispersed.

The syrupy consistency of the oil is also unsettling. Time tends to be an ally in oil spills. As oil remains at sea before it washes up, the most toxic elements evaporate, and the oil becomes more viscous and less gooey. Eventually it weathers into tarballs, which are of less immediate danger to bird feathers. Though this oil may have been weathering at sea for more than a month already, it’s still capable of coating and overwhelming even powerful birds such as Brown Pelicans.

Our team was deeply affected by the struggling birds they saw, and they were surprised to still see, despite the extent of the oil offshore, many healthy diving birds—particularly thousands of unoiled terns.

Either these birds have been able to avoid the offshore patches of oil as they feed, or individuals that do dive into oil quickly succumb and are lost at sea, away from the eyes of observers. This uncertainty is one reason why surveys of Gulf beaches are imperative, as the best indirect way to measure the oil spill’s toll through changes in population numbers.

As of today, the team has seen 13 species of birds with oil on them: Brown Pelican, Royal, Sandwich, and Forster’s terns, Laughing and Herring gulls, American Oystercatcher, Black-necked Stilt, Sanderling, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, Roseate Spoonbill, and American White Pelican.

We’ll continue to update this blog as we hear from our team in the Gulf Coast.

> More oil spill posts