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Gulf oil spill: Breton Island's imperiled birds

May 20, 2010 |  6:46 pm

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Every spring, Breton Island fills with the sounds of 40,000 nesting birds. Pelicans, terns and skimmers arrive in April and stay through July, or until their eggs hatch and their offspring can fly. But this year is different, as millions of gallons of oil swirl offshore.

Weeks ago, a small army of workers arrived to try to protect the fragile avian population from what could be a devastating disaster, as the Deepwater Horizon well continues to spew. They laid out layers of boom along every inch of the tiny island both onshore and off. BP employees monitor the situation from a temporary platform nearby.

Biologist James Harris, with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, has spent two decades at the Breton National Wildlife Refuge. “We’ve found 3 [live] oiled birds so far,” he tells a small group of journalists on a tour. “You can’t go chasing the lightly oiled birds through the nesting areas, because they can still fly. Trying to rescue them can disturb the other birds. If the pelican nests are disturbed, the eggs can get kicked out of the nests. The gulls will eat them.”

The 25-mile boat ride from Venice, La., takes less than an hour, and when land is spotted on the horizon, photographers pull out long lenses to try to get a glimpse of nesting pelicans, hidden in tall green sea grass.

But the first bird the group encounters is wrapped in a plastic bag: a dead brown pelican discovered by FWS enforcement officer Raul Sanchez only moments before. Its lifeless form and blood-soaked feathers can still be seen through the plastic as Sanchez tags the bag and hands it to a U.S. Coast Guard official. “Any dead bird that we find would be considered evidence,” Sanchez explains. “I saw a little oil residue on its wings.”

Sanchez and others also rescue a Laughing gull floundering in the sand, bobbing its head, unable to fly. Although no oil is visible, it will be taken for testing along with two other dead gulls found closer to the nesting area.

It is not unusual to find some dead birds in a colony this large. Harris speculates that the dead pelican probably got oiled while feeding in waters farther offshore. “Imagine wrapping yourself in a wet blanket to try to stay warm,” he explains when asked what happens when feathers meet fuel. “The oily feathers disrupt the birds' insulation system.”

“We’ve been involved with oil spills before, but this is the biggest one we’ve ever responded to,” Harris says. “Most of them are very small, sometimes only one barrel.”

As he motors back toward Venice, he adds: “We’ve been very fortunate so far, with the winds, tides and currents, that the oil hasn’t reached the island. I just hope they get it shut off pretty quick."

-- Carolyn Cole at Breton Island, La.

Photo: U.S. Coast Guard workers carry away a dead brown pelican found on Breton Island by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official, who said that the bird had oil on its wings. The dead pelican was turned over to the Coast Guard as evidence. Breton Island is a part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge. Some 40,000 birds are on Breton Island during nesting season. Layers of protective boom have been placed to protect the birds. Credit: Carolyn Cole/L.A. Times

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