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Gulf oil spill: Wildlife toll grows as more oil washes ashore

June 6, 2010 |  7:50 am


A brown pelican lies helpless on the southeast shore of Grand Terre Island, La., so heavily coated in oil it’s unable to hold up its head. Not far away a second pelican is bathed in oil, its wings stuck to its sides. Sitting in pools of oil, the two birds are all but camouflaged, making them difficult to see even a few feet away and nearly impossible to detect by workers in search of oiled wildlife.

Yet Marc Dantzker, a biologist and documentary filmmaker with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology,spotted them. He and two of his co-workers have spent the last week documenting the effect of the oil leak on a variety of birds on the island. “A week ago, I thought the island had dodged a bullet. The beaches were clear, they had been cleaned up a bit,” Dantzker said. “But we came back after a day away and we found it was awful.”

The outer islands of Barataria Bay have been slammed by a second wave of oil, much heavier than the one that hit two weeks ago. As of Saturday, BP had recovered 6000 gallons of oil during the first 24 hours after placing a containment cap on its blownout well, funnelling the oil to a ship at the top of the surface. But that was only a fraction of what was still spewing into the gulf.

The number of birds found alive and coated in oil throughout in five Gulf Coast states has nearly doubled to 177, with 156 of them picked up in Louisiana. But 547 birds have been found dead, 73 of them oil-soaked. It is not known whether the others died as a result of the oil, but experts said that's possible.

Wildlife experts fear that the population of Louisiana's brown pelicans, which only recently bounced back from near extinction, could once again be destabilized. "It made me sick seeing those two oiled birds,” Dantzker said. “I was incredibly sad.” The group called a bird hot-line to report the two dying pelicans. In less than an hour, a boat arrived.

“It was an incredible relief when those guys came and picked them up,” said Dantzker. “Saving individual birds is great, but it’s not the answer to the larger ecological problem.”

Three rescue workers came ashore wearing white coveralls, plastic gloves and yellow booties,and carrying big nets. They rushed to the scene with the urgency of paramedics.

The birds were an easy catch. Without a struggle, one man lifted the first bird into the net and raced back toward the boat on the other side of the island, while the others searched for the second victim.

Despite its weakness, the second pelican snapped its beak several times at the intruders. The birds were placed in large dog carriers and within minutes were on their way to Grand Isle, where professionals will stabilize the birds before they are transported by boat to the Fort Jackson Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Buras, La.

Duane Titus of International Bird Rescue said that birds caught within two days of being oiled typically have about a 95% survival rate.

Pelican3 It’s not only the birds that are falling prey to the oil. Oil has been seen on the fins and tails of bottlenose dolphins as they slowly swim through the polluted waters off the bay side of Grand Terre Island. They swam behind a boom stretched 100 yards from shore, but it provides little protection. A female and her calf surfaced together while several others could be swimming in the area.

--Carolyn Cole, reporting from Grand Terre Island, La.

Photos: At top, an oil-soaked pelican awaits rescue off Grand Terre Island; At bottom, rescue workers carry a pelican away from the beach for rehabilitation and eventual release back into the wild. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times