National Park Service officials were responding to tar balls and mats of oil washing up in parts of Gulf Islands National Seashore, a string of barrier islands off the coasts of Mississippi and Florida. In addition, Alabama's Dauphin Island, which is part of the barrier island chain but not part of the national seashore, has been hit with oil.
Petit Bois and Horn islands are all the more precious to Mississippi because, along with a small tract of forest land, they represent the only wilderness in the state. "That's it, that's all we've got," said Louie Miller of the Sierra Club. "Those islands are unique to the northern gulf and in pristine condition."
Petit Bois is one of the last undeveloped barrier islands in the gulf.
The latest tallies of wildlife collected showed a sharp jump, particularly in Louisiana, where the number of birds collected, both dead and alive, went from 358 to 404 from Saturday to Sunday. Seventy sea turtles have been picked up in the state, 66 of them dead. The number of reptiles, birds, turtles and mammals such as dolphins collected along the gulf stood at 1,143 Sunday, 107 more than the previous day. In Texas, 46 dead birds were picked up.
The three-member Cornell team, which arrived Sunday at sunrise on East Grand Terre Island, quickly spotted a young herring gull whose white breast feathers had turned orange. The gull appeared in relatively good shape, team members said, but they added that lightly covered birds often were most at risk because they are difficult to catch and treat.
Benjamin Clock crossed the deserted island to the beach, where he saw something barely moving under a large patch of oil. It was a snake, unrecognizable beneath its coat of oil except for its flickering tongue. The team watched as the reptile, its tail stuck in the slick, struggled to free itself. Just when it seemed on the verge of escape, a wave washed it back into the tar pit.
Biologist Marc Dantzker lifted the snake with a stick and carried it by hand to clean sand on the shore, where it wriggled for several minutes before heading toward grass in the middle of the island. Only then could he identify it as a speckled king snake.
The team also came upon what looked like a dead snowy egret, unrecognizable in its oily grave. "It looked like a bird fossil, an imprint of a bird in muck. It was awful," said Dantzker, who believes that "only a fraction" of dead birds have been found. He called wildlife rescue teams to alert them to the day's findings, which included an oil-covered pelican still alive on the shore.
Rescue workers plucked the pelican from the sand and took it to a rehabilitation center to be cleaned and eventually released back into the wild in Florida.
Times photographer Carolyn Cole on East Grand Terre Island and Noam Levey of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.