The great oil spill

(Cross-posted from Backyard Birder.)

Our regular weekly roundup of news of birds and the environment is this week completely dominated by one story: The explosion of the BP oil rig in the Gulf and the subsequent gigantic and potentially disastrous oil spill.

As thousands of barrels of oil continue to gush from the area of the rig every single day that the leak goes unstopped, the possibility of a true environmental catastrophe along the Gulf Coast grows hourly. Even now the first of the oil has reached the coastal areas and the first oil-soaked bird, a young Northern Gannet, has been found and is being cleaned by volunteers.

There are several national parks and wildlife refuges that are in the path of the spill which could threaten the coastlines of four states - Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Among them is the Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi, where mated pairs of cranes have just hatched their babies in April. These hatchlings would be particularly vulnerable.

In fact, all along the Gulf Coast just now, beach-nesting terns, gulls, and shorebirds have active nests, are incubating eggs, or have just hatched their young. This is the height of the nesting season and that is what makes this oil spill so potentially devastating. Of course, it would be devastating not just for birds but for other wildlife that raise their young along the coastline as well. Wildlife officials have estimated that up to 400 species of animals could be affected. The timing could hardly be worse.

The National Audubon Society has released a list of the birds which it fears will be imperiled by the oil spill. This includes many shorebirds and wading birds that will be familiar to birders of the Texas Coast, but topping the list is the Brown Pelican.

Brown Pelican swimming in Aransas Bay.

The Brown Pelican was on the Endangered Species list for many years and was only removed from that list late last year, after a remarkable comeback. The species, however, is still very vulnerable to storms and habitat loss and would be especially susceptible to the effects of this oil spill. They nest on barrier islands and feed - by diving into the water - near the shore. Their breeding season has just begun and many pairs are incubating eggs. The pelicans have a low reproductive rate anyway, and loss of a large number of eggs and young could have serious effects on the population.

Unfortunately, it isn't only shorebirds, wading birds, and water birds that could be affected by this gigantic spill. Migratory songbirds, some of them our favorite backyard birds, also could suffer from it. Many of these colorful birds, such as orioles, warblers, tanagers and buntings, fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico at this time of year. This is a grueling journey which taxes the birds to their physical limits. They depend on clear skies and healthy habitats on both sides of the gulf in order to survive the journey. The air pollution from the cleanup efforts, if not the oil itself, poses a threat to them - one more obstacle just when they are nearing exhaustion from their flight.

This disaster in the making reminds us of some of the hazards of offshore drilling and gives the lie to industry claims about the safety of such drilling. It should make the president and everyone else in the government who has responsiblity in this area think twice and perhaps thrice before they agree to open up the coastlines near sensitive barrier islands and other such areas for more drilling.

As Audubon Legislative Director Mike Daulton said in a statement this week, "It is unfortunate that it takes a potential disaster to remind the nation of the risks involved with our addiction to oil. This spill would give anyone pause regarding the pursuit of risky drilling in environmentally sensitive coastal areas. For the long term, we need to move as quickly as possible from the addiction to fossil fuels to the promise of clean, renewable energy."

To that I can only add, "Amen!"


  1. "It's not a spill, it's a flow. Envision sort of an underground volcano of oil and it keeps spewing over 200,000 gallons every single day, if not more." -- Charlie Crist
    Dead sea turtles are washing ashore on Mississippi beaches. A fishing ban is in effect in the Gulf marshes. And the oil just keeps spewing.

  2. What it is is a nightmare, Caroline, whatever else we choose to call it. The effects of this catastrophe both short-term and long-term are almost unimaginable at this point. One can only hope that we learn something valuable from it - but I wouldn't count on that.


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