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Gulf oil spill: Oil plagues Louisiana's largest pelican nesting area

July 20, 2010 | 11:20 am

Pelican.raccoon
Although BP's well may be sealed for now, oil continues to seep onto shorelines and marshes, coating wildlife with a thin sheen. It's seeped onto Raccoon Island, Louisiana's largest pelican nesting area, which is home to about 10,000 nesting birds.

Days after researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology said they saw 30 to 40 pelicans oiled from "head to toe" and predicted that those birds would soon die, oiled birds were still visible on the thin spit of land buttressed by rocks. The oiled birds, which were dark brown in color, appeared to have no problem flying.

In the last week, the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has collected 16 oiled live birds from the island and brought them to Fort Jackson for cleaning and rehabilitation, said Mike Carloss, biologist director with the coastal and nongame resources division. He caught six of those birds Tuesday. Many oiled birds were not deeply coated and could still fly and feed, he said. His department has estimated there are about 68 oiled birds on the island.

"At first, it was heartbreaking. But it looks a lot better today," he said. Wildlife.raccoon

Wildlife and Fisheries had originally said it could not rescue many oiled birds from the colony because it is nesting season. If humans try to catch the birds during nesting season, some babies could jump out of their nests and become disoriented and possibly oiled, Carloss said. He added that waiting until nesting season was over in a few weeks would allow biologists to recover oiled birds without endangering younger birds. Then, they can catch oiled birds that have become too weak to fly away.  

The policy of waiting to recover oiled birds is controversial. Drew Wheelan, gulf conservation coordinator for the American Birding Assn., said that he believed there could be up to 400 oiled birds on the island, and that they should be rescued before they die.

"They're doing a disservice to those birds," he said. "They're on the edge of the colony and could be rescued without too much disturbance."

-- Alana Semuels in Raccoon Island, La.

Top photo: An oiled pelican spreads its wings on Raccoon Island. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Bottom photo: A biologist walks among the birds on Raccoon Island to survey the damage caused by the oil. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times