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Gulf oil spill: Birds in Barataria Bay hit hard

June 6, 2010 |  5:35 pm

Smallbird
  
Members of a three-man team from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology traveled from Grand Isle, La., by boat to the outer islands of Barataria Bay to film the effects the oil is having on the bird population.

They arrived on East Grand Terre Island just as the sun was coming up and quickly spotted a first-year herring gull, whose white breast feathers had turned orange.

“It looked like he had come into contact with the oil while swimming and had then spread it around while trying to clean itself,” said Marc Dantzker, a biologist and documentary filmmaker.

In comparison to the images they had taken earlier of oil-drenched pelicans, the gull looked in pretty good shape. But often those lightly oiled birds are most at risk, because they are difficult to catch and treat.

“There are many, many thousands of birds out there that only have a bit of oil, and we don’t have any idea what will happen to them,” he said.

Cameraman Benjamin Clock crossed over the deserted island to the beach, where soon he saw something barely moving under a large patch of oil near the water.

“When I first saw it, it was barely moving under the surface,” said Clock. “It slowly started to emerge and flick its tongue.” That’s when he realized it was a snake, headed for the salt water.

Snake

Completely covered head to toe in oil, its tail still stuck in the slick, the snake slithered back and forth. For 15 minutes they watched as it tried to free itself. And just when it looked like it was going to escape, a wave came and washed it back into the tar pit.

Stepping in, Dantzker used a stick to lift it, carrying it by hand to the clean sand on shore. The snake appeared to wipe oil off its head onto Dantzker’s hand, and when its face and eyes were clear, it became more alert.

Clock soon realized it wasn’t a water snake at all, because of its yellow and black markings.

“All the fresh-water snakes in this part of Louisiana are brown, and there is no such thing as [salt-water] sea snakes in this area,” said Clock.

“It might have been hunting down at the beach at night and got stuck,” he continued when asked how it could survive under the oil slick. “Luckily snakes don’t have to breathe too often, and they have a low metabolism.”

The snake wiggled back and forth in the dry sand for several minutes before heading for the sea grass toward the middle of the island.

The team also came upon the body of what looked like a snowy egret, Dantzker said.

“It was a flattened, matted carcass, bent out of shape and all its color changed to brown,” he continued. “It looked like a bird fossil, an imprint of a bird in muck. It was awful,” he said.

“We don’t know how many birds out there that have drowned. Only a fraction of the number of those that die are found,” Dantzker said.

He called the BP wildlife hotline to report the two creatures along with a brown pelican heavily covered in oil that was still alive on the shore. The rescue team arrived more than an hour later and took the bird to an aid station. “Yesterday and today, it has really hit home,” said Larry Arbanas, a nature videographer who has never been to an oil spill before. “This is what we are here to do: to visually capture the damage being done to the bird population.” 

After removing their oil-covered rubber boots, they boarded the boat and headed back to shore.  They will visit the pelican nesting area of Breton Island on Monday to continue their work.

--Carolyn Cole, reporting from Barataria Bay, La.

Photos: Top, a dead bird, believed to be an egret, and, center, a small snake coated in oil on East Grand Terre Island, La. Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times

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