Audubon Reports from the Gulf: Oil Persists, and So Do Concerns about Birds

American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) at Barataria Bay IBA, Queen Bess Island on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. March 26, 2011. (c)Gerry Ellis/Audubon/

One year after the BP oil disaster began in the Gulf of Mexico, Audubon experts report that oil can still be found in gulf marshes and beaches that provide critical habitat for at-risk birds.  Recent trips through Louisiana’s Barataria Bay revealed tar balls on beaches and oil oozing through marsh grasses, a discouraging sight as the breeding season begins for dozens of Gulf Coast bird species.

“One thing I’m very concerned about now, as we begin a new breeding season, is that there’s still lots of oil in places where many species of birds nest and feed,” said Melanie Driscoll, Audubon’s Director of Bird Conservation for the Gulf.  “As species like Wilson’s Plover and Least Tern return to their traditional breeding grounds, they are coming into contact with oil again, which poses many health risks to them and their young.”

Oil can also harm birds by affecting their food sources.  Birds could go hungry if oil or cleanup activities reduce availability of prey such as fish, marine worms, oysters and crustaceans (including shrimp and crabs).  Additionally, damaging compounds from oil work their way through the food web with potential impacts on birds’ overall health and reproductive success.

“Oil will continue to change form and affect these complex food webs in many different ways for years to come,” said Driscoll.

Audubon has identified several species that may be particularly vulnerable to the spill’s effects, especially in light of the other challenges they face.  These species include Black Skimmer, Clapper Rail, Least Tern, Piping Plover, Red Knot, Sanderling, Seaside Sparrow, and Wilson’s Plover.  (Additional information on each can be found here.)

Last summer, Audubon staff and volunteers played a crucial role in helping to reduce the BP oil spill’s impacts on birds and habitat, including a Coastal Bird Survey which was launched during the spill, as well as trend analysis of Gulf Christmas Bird Count data which will help assess impacts over time.

“If we can marshal the passion and sense of urgency we all felt a year ago, we can turn the tide and create a sustainable Gulf that is even healthier than it was before the disaster,” said David Yarnold, Audubon President and CEO.  “We can enable the Louisiana coast to rebuild itself, by working with the power of the Mississippi River instead of against it.  We can re-envision our energy future in ways that don’t risk toxic overload of our waters, lands and communities.  And we can ensure that the rich biological and cultural diversity of this vital, vibrant region inspires our children and grandchildren as it has us.”

Read more about Audubon’s findings on Melanie’s blog.

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