Gulf oil spill washes over a pelican rookery
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When Louisiana brown pelicans, an endangered species, were reintroduced into the wild in the 1970s, Queen Bess Island was the first place where fledglings were nurtured. They flourished there. The population grew and finally was declared secure only eight years ago.
But today, the pelicans, Louisiana’s state birds, are among the wildlife most affected by BP’s massive oil spill. Driven by strong winds and tides, oil began washing onto the Queen Bess Island Pelican Rookery Thursday, coating 60 birds, including 41 pelicans, with oil. More avian victims were expected Friday.
‘These birds are being rescued and transported to the Fort Jackson Rehabilitation Center by well-trained and knowledgeable wildlife responders, veterinarians, biologists and wildlife rehabilitators,’ the Unified Command, the umbrella group of state, federal and private officials, reported from Houma, La. ‘The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and a team of other wildlife responders...will continue to work around the clock to restore the rookery and its natural habitat.’
The sudden escalation in the number of oil-coated birds came after six weeks where wildlife officials barely had enough to do, with fewer than a half dozen birds a day coming into Louisiana’s rescue center. Federal wildlife experts Thursday released two rescued and cleaned birds back into the wild, raising the total to 24.
As of Friday morning, officials reported 527 dead birds, of which 38 were visibly oiled. Another 85 visibly oiled birds have been brought in for rehab. Also found: 235 dead sea turtles, two of which were visibly oiled; 27 sea turtles brought in for rehab, of which 24 were visibly oiled; 30 dead mammals, including dolphins and one visibly oiled brought in for rehab. Even if creatures are not visibly oiled, they may suffer by ingesting oil.
The birds transported Thursday were being kept in wooden pens with mesh covers, and warmed by heat lamps until they can be washed.
The New York Daily News this week quoted an unidentified cleanup worker alleging that BP has ordered its contractors not to publicize the plight of oiled birds. ‘There is a lot of coverup for BP,’ he said, according to the News. ‘They specifically informed us that they don’t want these pictures of the dead animals. They know the ocean will wipe away most of the evidence.’
The worker toured Queen Bess Island with the reporter, saying, ‘It’s important to me that people know the truth about what’s going on here. The things I’ve seen: They just aren’t right. All the life out here is just full of oil. I’m going to show you what BP never showed the president.’ According to the News, shoreline grasses were littered with tarred marine life, some dead and others struggling under a thick coating of crude.
A BP spokesman denied any effort to conceal environmental damage, noting that BP has organized press tours to the spill zone.
On Thursday, Times staff writer Tina Susman traveled with a group of three dozen wildlife rescuers operating from a houseboat 35 miles off Louisiana’s shore, as they searched for oil-slicked birds. ‘This has the potential to be a huge ecological disaster,’ biologist Haven Barnhill told her. The search is brutally challenging: Temperatures soar into the 90s and the expanse covers tens of thousands of square miles of open water.
Satellite images narrow the search field, but the effort still comes down to a biologist spotting a small, flailing victim through binoculars. Read Susman’s report here.
-- Margot Roosevelt
Charlie Riedel / Associated Press