Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Conserving natural resources

Google Books has a complete preview of 101 Ways to Help Birds--here is the chapter about why conserving natural resources is so very important for birds.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Hands across the Sand: My remarks

Duluth held a Hands across the Sand event on Saturday, organized by John Doberstein. He asked me to deliver some remarks. Here's what I said:

I’m 58 years old. The disaster in the Gulf is the worst environmental disaster in the United States during my lifetime, and I’m including the Cuyahoga River on fire, and Lake Erie being declared dead, and the Exxon Valdez. The Gulf of Mexico is located in the very heart and soul of the Americas. Looking at it from a human-centered point of view, our fish, oysters, shrimp, and a host of other natural resources come from those waters. Human beings take their respite and restore their souls along its beaches. Eleven human beings died in the initial explosion. One despairing charter fisherman took his own life this week. Hundreds have been treated for illnesses associated with toxic air. And the oil is still gushing.

Looking at it from a natural world point of view, this body of water is right smack in the pathway between North and Central and South America. The newest research indicates that the vast majority of loons from Minnesota and Wisconsin head to the Gulf during fall migration. One plunge into those oiled waters will doom a great many of them.

Our hummingbirds from up here head to the Gulf Coast in fall, where they replenish their body fat and then strike out, many over open water, flying non-stop to the Yucat√°n Peninsula—a minimum of 600 miles away—in an arduous marathon—without medical tents or friendly helpers hovering in their airspace and holding out Gatorade. Imagine running Grandma’s, even with all this support, while the air is filled with benzene and other toxins. And our hummingbirds are not merely trying to win a sporting event—if they don’t finish this autumn marathon, or the spring marathon to follow, they’ll drop into the murky depths, never to be noticed. And the oil is still gushing.

A great many of our songbirds will also fly to the Gulf and beyond this fall. They depend on quality habitat along the coastline to replenish their bodies. Many fly by night over that huge expanse of water, using stars to navigate. How many will survive the journey? Our waterfowl, our shorebirds, our Ospreys, some of our Bald Eagles, every one of our Whooping Cranes—a great many of our birds are headed to the Gulf this fall. And the oil is still gushing.

The methane and oil in the depths, broken up by poisonous dispersants, are killing dolphins and whales, turtles and plankton, while sucking up oxygen. This is not just a huge expansion of the Gulf’s dead zone. There are no words for a dead zone that isn’t just oxygen depleted, but filled with poisons. And the oil is still gushing.

This mess is so big and so deep and so tall—is there any way to fix it? Any way at all?

In the face of this accelerating disaster, it’s easy to despair. It’s easy to say we can do nothing. It’s grown increasingly easy over the past decade to give up—to feel that our individual voices, our consciences, our love for our natural world have no influence on anything anymore. Corporations have insidiously taken over our lives in the very ways that republican President Eisenhower so strongly warned against. Now I see the same levels of apathy and despair in Americans that we once saw in Soviet Russians—apathy and despair derived from citizens being robbed of their voices, their influence, their vote. We still can vote in government elections, but we can’t vote for the corporate leaders and corporate policies that led directly and inexorably to this disaster.

We gather here in a unified rebuke to apathy and despair, our hands linked in unified belief that the natural world matters, and that our voices can and will be heard. We must never waver from a firm resolve that our democratically elected government will once again represent our voices. Our government must firmly and consistently regulate corporations, and effectively enforce these regulations, so that we can put an end to privatizing profits while socializing risks. We won World War II in less than four years because of our shared focus, our shared sacrifice, and our shared resolve. The only way we can possibly defeat this foulness that is gushing into our waters will be with the same shared focus, shared sacrifice, and shared resolve.

We must never for one moment forget these hallowed dead—the human beings, the pelicans and dolphins and whales and other wildlife that gave and are still giving their all, as the oil still gushes. We must work together to ensure that our government and our Gulf—these waters in the very soul of America—are restored to us all. As another great Republican president once said, Let us highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-- so that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Loons wintering in the Gulf

Common Loon
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
(Transcript from today's "For the Birds")

My Texas friend Ruskin Teeter sent me a message yesterday, quoting a friend in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, who emailed him after the oil hit:
"Well, (no pun intended) the oil is here. I am sick about it. I have been crying for about an hour now. Life in this area is changed forever. Hurricanes can be overcome. This is just too much. I am so glad that Mom passed 2 years ago because this would have killed her. Say your prayers for us, the gulf, the beaches, and the wildlife. This is devastating. Nothing you see on the TV can prepare you for this mess.

And nothing on the news—on television, the internet, the radio, or magazines and newspapers—can possibly prepare our loons for what they’ll experience after their long fall migration when they finally reach those familiar waters where they spent the first couple of years of their life. The moment they dive in, it will be too late.
Many of the books and papers I’ve read over the years said that loons from the Great Lakes region migrate east, to the Atlantic coast, and wend their way south along the coast through the winter. But more current research, based on extensive banding efforts by researchers at the BioDiversity Research Institute in Maine, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and George Mason University in California, as well as tracking via satellite transmitters, has brought a lot more precision to what we know. According to the Common Loon account in the Birds of North America Online, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the American Ornithologists’ Union and updated just last month:
The loon populations of the Upper Great Lakes in Michigan and Wisconsin migrate along the southern Great Lakes and use an overland migration route to the Gulf of Mexico (Alabama east along the Florida coast) and e. Florida. Some individuals stage on lakes along the way and even over-winter in larger reservoirs in Tennessee and Alabama. Minnesota and Wisconsin breeding populations have two migration routes, and both generally use the Great Lakes as staging areas. The primary route includes the Gulf of Mexico from Mississippi west to Texas, and the second documented route uses the southern Great Lakes to make an easterly migration to the mid-Atlantic.

This means that the bulk of the loons nesting in our listening area will be headed to the Gulf within the next three months—quite likely while new oil is still gushing into what is already a disaster area. I’m not sure if there is any natural way some loons will figure out the danger in time to avoid being oiled, and the scale of this disaster and the number of species it’s affecting and will affect is too enormous for anyone to wrap their heads around, much less develop any kind of realistic action plan focused on just one species of so many.
Young loons remain in salt water for usually a couple of years, which means loons that hatched in 2008 and 2009 are on the Gulf and the Atlantic coasts right now. They tend to stay pretty far away from shore in summer, so aren’t easy to census, and will be easily overlooked if they sink or get wrapped in gunk. We’ll never be able to assess how many were lost, but we can count on smaller loon numbers for many years to come.

Last week I photographed a pair of loons and their two chicks on a lake near Boulder Dam, Wisconsin. I watched one of the adults waggling its foot and a chick imitating it—a charming thing that would have filled me with delight most years. But I kept wondering what this little family would be facing in a matter of weeks, and felt sick to my stomach. This disaster is bigger than any of us have been able to even imagine, and the oil is still gushing.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How long should a drilling moratorium go on?

California Sea Lions
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
A judge who happens to own stock in a lot of oil industry companies ruled yesterday that the Obama administration's 6-month moratorium on oil drilling in the Gulf was arbitrary and unfair, punishing "innocent" companies. But apparently most or all of those companies in the Gulf of Mexico have emergency response plans that are virtually identical to BP's, including protecting walruses and sea lions and listing a dead man as their expert consultant for wildlife.

Halliburton claims that they warned BP that shortcuts weren't wise, but the fact that they still went along with BP's plans makes them complicit, and offers absolutely no reassurance that other wells they've worked on aren't equally compromised. Transocean also went along with BP's plans, making them complicit, too. This is a case of murder, and these companies (which the Supreme Court says deserve the same consideration as human beings) are accomplices.

These companies all worked with Dick Cheney in secret meetings; they all have to remain suspect until, one by one, they re-evaluate each and every one of their wells in the Gulf using real-world standards, and develop real-world technologies that can stop these horrific "accidents" or at least fix them when they do occur. And the proof is in the pudding. If they really can stop one of these disasters, let them prove it today, right there at the Deepwater Horizon well.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

How many birds migrate over the Gulf?

On a May 1, 2000, post on BirdChat, the national birding listserv, gave subscribers a glimpse into just how many birds fly over a Louisiana oil platform. Jay Greenberg forwarded a post from a New York birding listserv by Steve Kelling, who was in turn quoting Brian Sullivan, who was monitoring migrants from an Exxon oil platform for the previous seven weeks as part of an Louisiana State University Gulf migration project. Steve quotes Brian:

I have been having some incredible flights of birds out here lately. Thousands of migrants over the past four days, including just over 4,000 birds on the 24th. My constant companions over the last three days have been Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, which have been hunting moths from the handrails not more than 10 feet away from me all day. On the 24th, a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak landed on the arm of my chair, in which I was sitting at the time. The flight on the 24th was truly one of the most amazing migration spectacles I have ever witnessed. Imagine, over 4,000 passerines passed this one point, just a random spot in the middle of the Gulf. To think of the total number of birds on the move that day is mind boggling.

The day started with strong SSW winds at 30 mph, changing over to WNW with the passage of a strong cold front around 11 AM. The first high-altitude migrants could be seen as early as 8:30 AM, much earlier than they typically arrive at Green Canyon, meaning they covered roughly 400 miles possibly in less than 12 hours. It seems that even with the best of tailwinds, they typically don't show up until after 15 hours of flight, however the winds aloft this day were exceptional.

When the front hit, which contained no precipitation, the migrants immediately lost altitude, flying anywhere from just over the surface of the water to a height of several hundred meters. The majority, however, were at eye level. It was amazing to watch mixed flocks of warblers, tanangers, orioles, grosbeaks and buntings as they all hurtled north together. Most of the birds went unidentified, but late in the afternoon as the sun got lower and the light improved I was able to identify 66 species of migrants, by far the best diversity here at Green Canyon this year. I would stand there facing south and find a flock with the binoculars, then scope them only to see dozens more specks in the distance. I would often hear the close approaching flocks before seeing them, as they would fly straight into the platform then disperse off in every direction as they were buffeted by the 30 mph winds on each side. I would just look up and without warning there would be 50 warblers shooting off in all directions. It was maddening trying to make identifications. I felt useless as flocks of birds would go by and I could not identify more than 5 or 10, if I was lucky.

Warbler ID in flight is an art, and I could have used some of the pros out here with me that day. Highlights were, Golden-winged Warbler, Canada Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, and Cape May Warbler. One of the most interesting features of the day was a high-elevatioin flight of Gray Catbirds and Catharus thrushes. These birds were traveling at altitudes of what we call code 3, or only visible with binoculars. I found it interesting that the Catharus thrushes were in tight coherent flocks, not unlike migrating American Robins, a behavior unknown to me. The catbirds, or the other hand, seemed to go out of their way to avoid flocking and flocks of other passerines passing by. Panning my scope up to look at these birds would reveal Gray Catbird after Gray Catbird, just plodding their way north way the hell up there, with a good number of cuckoos thrown in for good measure, as well as the odd shorebird flock. The big warbler species were Magnolia and Tennessee, with over twenty other species thrown in. Indigo Buntings and Baltimore Orioles were also in huge numbers.

That evening, and night, many tired migrants started to fall out on deck. I had many birds spend the night in the rafters under the helipad with a good changeover continuing throughout the night. By morning, most had departed, but another nice wave of tired migrants continued to travel north throughout the day.

That evening I had many birds on board, including a handsome Purple Gallinule, and a gorgeous male Cerulean Warbler, which let me get within 2 feet before hopping away, yes hopping. It’s amazing how oblivious these birds can be to my presence. The other day I watched a Purple Gallinule trying to get a drink out of the deck drain, and I sat down right next to it. It looked at me briefly, then went back to what it was doing. I was close enough to reach out and touch the bird, and having never handled a Purple Gallinule before, that's what I did, and it didn't care one bit. I could study every single feather tract of the Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, but they didn't let me touch them. I tried. I also had a very tame Acadian Flycatcher which perched on my boot briefly while my feet were up on the handrail.

For those of you who have birded the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, the experience out here is similar, only to a larger degree. Tired birds, good looks, and a lot of days with nothing to look at but the water. The sea has been very quiet lately. The Laughing Gulls have moved on, as well as the Pomarine Jaegers, which seem to have vanished altogether without so much as a good bye. I think I may have barely eeked out 1000 for the season, a great number for a species I was happy to become more familiar with.

Raptors have been limited to Peregrines and Merlins, which have been seen on a daily basis lately. I saw a female tundrius Peregrine catch a Purple Gallinule the other day, then proceed to carry it up on to the flare boom and devour the poor bastard. I didn't feel that bad though, natural selection hurts, and I was actually happy to have found the leg later.

I'm trying so hard to be hopeful.

Common Loon
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
This past weekend I got to watch and photograph a loon family. Baby loons have always filled me with hope and joy. But not this year. These two chicks and their parents are headed to the Gulf for the winter. Do they have a snowball's chance in hell of surviving?

Here is what the newly updated Birds of North America Online says about the migration routes of our Upper Midwest loons:
The loon populations of the Upper Great Lakes in Michigan and Wisconsin migrate along the southern Great Lakes and use an overland migration route to the Gulf of Mexico (Alabama east along the Florida coast) and e. Florida. Some individuals stage on lakes along the way and even over-winter in larger reservoirs in Tennessee (Kenow et al. 2002) and Alabama (Belant et al. 1991). Minnesota and Wisconsin breeding populations have two migration routes, and both generally use the Great Lakes as staging areas. The primary route includes the Gulf of Mexico from Mississippi west to Texas, and the second documented route uses the southern Great Lakes to make an easterly migration to the mid-Atlantic.

Last year's chicks are on the Gulf right now--loons spend 2-3 years in saltwater before heading to their breeding grounds. This year's chicks...I don't know how they can possibly survive this.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

One constant in my life

Every night as I try to fall asleep now, I can't stop thinking about the black stain growing insidiously in our nation's soul. Every day I wake to new bad news--the spill is 5,000 barrels a day. No--12,000. No--20,000. No--60,000. The coastline affected grows daily.

But there's one constant in my life. Virtually every day when I check the stats for my flickr account, the one photo at the top--the one more people click on than any other, is this one of Jeepers the Neighborhood Pileated Woodpecker. I can take an amazing shot of a Prothonotary Warbler, or a series of photos of a woman tossing fish to a Brown Pelican who catches them in mid-air, or a silly shot of a goldfinch that looks like it's levitating, or a Great Blue Heron with its beak open and a fish suspended in space between the upper and lower mandibles. No matter how many photos I take, and how many are really good shots, ever and anon the number one shot is Jeepers.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Faces of the Gulf

Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
My Twin Beaks blog is now posting several new posts a day, "I'm the Gulf of Mexico," featuring birds and other wildlife that spend all or a critical time of their lives along the Gulf waters or its coastal lands. From white-tailed deer to Brown Pelicans, flddler crabs to Painted Buntings, Royal Terms to Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, check out a sampling of the many species that depend on this beautiful area.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Kurt Vonnegut's final book, A Man without a Country, ends with a poem called "Requiem":

When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say
in a voice floating up
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
“It is done.”
People did not like it here.

Why save pelicans?

Brown Pelican
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
(Transcript of "For the Birds" for June 14, 2010)

I’m writing this on June 13, 2010, Day 54 of the Gulf Disaster. One of my Texas friends, Ruskin Teeter, just posted a message on Facebook: “Driving west from northwestern Florida today, through Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, the spill smells were bad, beginning at about Pensacola, and they became much worse crossing Mobile Bay. My eyes burned, my nose ran, and I coughed until turning north and getting half-way across the Atchafalaya Basin. No way this could be healthy.”
Ruskin’s exactly right that there is no way this can be healthy, for humans or for birds, which have such a high metabolism that they absorb and react to toxins much more quickly than we do. The expression “canaries in a coal mine” comes from the real world.
The Gulf crisis is the largest environmental catastrophe this nation has ever faced, and every day the situation grows ever more desperate. In the face of the millions upon millions of gallons of oil spreading to cover ever more of the vast Gulf and its rich coastline, critics have been saying that rehabbing pelicans is an inappropriate use of resources—too small percentage of birds rehabbed from oil spills actually recover, and many of these individuals will head right back to where they were oiled because of their exquisite homing instincts. And hurricanes and ocean currents will spread oil so far that species with limited ranges won’t have any place to go anyway. These critics would rather see our limited resources focused on populations and habitats and on ensuring that such a disaster can never happen again.
I understand the enormity of this disaster. Fears that the Gulf will soon be so toxic that nothing will be able to live in its water for decades may not be the least bit overblown. But despair is not the answer. Before we were even a nation, we Americans worked together in a concerted effort to defeat the most powerful empire on earth to win our independence. Remembering that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, we made enormous personal and collective sacrifices and survived the Great Depression, destroyed Nazism, and defeated the nation that had attacked Pearl Harbor. When we set our collective minds and hearts to it, we traveled to the moon, walked upon its surface, and even hit a couple of golf balls up there. And we brought back Lake Erie from the dead.
Now we must save the Gulf of Mexico. Failure is not an option. We won World War II not by sending our boys off and forgetting about them the way we’ve been doing to our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. We won World War II by focus and collective sacrifice—rationing and scarcity were the order of the day, and any American who griped about it would have been shunned. This level of sacrifice and more will be necessary to defeat this horrifying attack right here in American waters and now creeping insidiously onto our shorelines and precious estuaries and marshes, poisoning our nation’s very soul.
As we fight this enormous ecological threat, the one thing we must not sacrifice is our essential humanity. Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul—to turn away from suffering creatures because it’s not expeditious is the mindset of a greedy, cost-cutting corporation, not a human being. To deny help to these oiled birds would diminish us all. To passively allow the light in a pelican’s eyes to be extinguished when a person has the expertise and passion to help it goes against the grain of our very humanity. And without that, we ourselves are not worth saving.

Friday, June 11, 2010

What would Lincoln (Abraham) say?

Ring-billed Gull
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
I’m writing this on June 10, 2010, Day 52 of the Gulf Oil Disaster, right after official estimates of how much oil has been gushing have been doubled. At this point, assuming these current numbers don’t also turn out to be gross underestimates, we’re closing in on 40 million gallons of oil spilled. Several organizations and governmental units are collaborating on maintaining a comprehensive list of all killed and maimed wildlife collected—the number of birds reached 1131 by noon today, of which 658 were collected dead. Of the remaining 473 collected still alive, 40 have been cleaned and released, a number that hasn’t grown in several days because of so many concerns that there is no safe place to release these poor creatures. No one is publicizing the number of animals that die at rehab facilities—official counts keep track only of whether they’re alive or dead at the moment they’re collected. Virtually all the birds found have either been picked up on beaches or in other accessible places rather than dense marshes, so although some say the number collected is about 10 or 20 percent of the total number of birds oiled, I believe the number found is more likely a mere 1 percent or less. But there is no objective, scientific way of setting the figure either way for certain.

In the face of this ongoing, constantly growing disaster, people are becoming both numb and prickly. On an online discussion group, after one person said that it’s a no brainer that we Americans must conserve more energy, another said we simply cannot—we are defined as a species by our technology, and our very nature is to continue growing increasingly technological. In response, I suggested that perhaps our very technology can find ways of maximizing energy efficiency of these comforts and entertainments, and cited my Prius, the most comfortable car I’ve ever had, as an example of a technological innovation that provides all the benefits of a car while giving me an average of between 48 and 52 miles per gallon with every fill up. Instantly, another guy started berating me with South Park epithets to ridicule what he called my holier than thou superiority.
Conservation of natural resources alone is certainly not going to get us out of this horrifying situation, but there is no way anything else is going to without a national commitment to stop squandering our finite resources. I haven’t heard anyone ridiculing people who have been building their 401-Ks and making large profits from BP, Halliburton, or other corporations with horrible records. There are even people arguing in credible newspapers today that BP shareholders deserve to receive their usual large dividends this year, though every penny of those profits and of the profits paid out for many years was made via entrenched corporate policies that take egregiously dangerous shortcuts in safety. Mass murderer Amy Bishop killed three people—less than a third the number of human beings killed in the oil rig explosion directly because of BPs violations. The moment Bishop was caught she was sent to jail, though she hasn’t been tried yet, and some of her family’s assets were quickly seized. The Supreme Court ruled that corporations must get the same rights as people, but in reality we give corporations more rights. We have evolved a peculiarly distorted version of capitalism wherein corporations privatize their profits while socializing their risks and many of their costs, and the people responsible for making even the most egregious decisions are given control of when and where enforcement agencies can get access to their crime scenes to investigate. BP is even still being allowed to run the salvage efforts, when its vested interest is more in hiding the extent of the damage than genuinely rectifying it.

When we consider the human beings killed in the explosion and now the oiled carcasses of birds and mammals littering the filthy shoreline of our once beautiful Gulf, we should remember Abraham Lincoln’s words about the honored dead at Gettysburg. Let us highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom from corporatism-- so that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

These honored dead

Let us highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom from corporatism-- so that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Spill, The Scandal and the President | Rolling Stone Politics

This is the most insightful and thorough article anywhere about events leading up to the spill and the shameful response. The Spill, The Scandal and the President | Rolling Stone Politics

Trying to assess

Laughing Gull
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
(Transcript of For the Birds for June 9, 2010)

I’m writing this script on June 8, 2010, Day 50 in the Gulf Oil Disaster. Current estimates are that Louisiana wildlife teams have recovered more than a thousand birds - most of them dead. Some survivors have been treated and then released in Florida. But these species have a built-in map and compass and a powerful homing instinct. Many or most of the adult pelicans are in the middle of their nesting season right now, and although getting oiled has certainly doomed their chicks to slow starvation, most or virtually all the birds released in Florida will most assuredly head straight back home, to ever increasing amounts of oil. The spill started out far from shore, and only 192 brown pelicans were brought into a Fort Jackson, Louisiana facility in the past six weeks, but reflecting the growing area of contamination, 86 were delivered just this Sunday. Many experts estimate that only 10–20 percent of oiled birds are ever found. I’m sure this is true in the case of large birds like pelicans and gannets, but suspect that the number of small birds that will be found in the muck will be less than one percent of the real number. How can we possibly find warblers weighing just a third of an ounce, or hummingbirds weighing just one tenth of an ounce, in a sea of black gunk?

Carcasses of large marine mammals may be equally hard to find unless they wash to shore. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bioacoustics Research Program is sending a team down this week to deploy acoustic monitoring devices to keep track of whale vocalizations—an exercise that promises to be as interesting as it will be depressing.

As more and more marshland gets contaminated in the coming weeks and months, the number of animals coated with oil will continue to grow, though news accounts will surely lose interest before birds and other wildlife stop dying. By late July and August, when our Northland birds start heading to the Gulf Coast and beyond during their fall migration, I’m afraid people are going to be too numb to even care. I don’t even want to think of the implications during the height of hurricane season.

Elections are coming up, but what name on a ballot can anyone really trust? A full 58 percent of active or senior judges in key Gulf Coast districts in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida have links to oil, gas and related energy industries, including some who own stocks or bonds in BP, Halliburton or Transocean, and others who regularly list receiving royalties from oil and gas production wells. We’ll be learning more and more about campaign contributions from various oil companies to both democrats and republicans, and maybe someone will uncover the truth about Dick Cheney’s secret energy policy meetings, but really, what can we possibly do with that information? The normal response will be to tune it out, and I’m sure plenty of other problems will crop up to distract us. The people who care most about the damaged ecosystem and the wildlife that depends on it will be frozen in despair or down in the Gulf volunteering to monitor water toxicity or engaged in the Sisyphean task of salvaging increasing numbers of migratory birds whose very natures doom them to head right back into the contaminated region. It’s only Day 50 of this nightmare, and the harsh reality is that the worst is yet to come.

But we are human beings—and I have to believe that our species includes more rocket scientists, poets, naturalists, and just plain decent people than greedy corporate sociopaths. Our species may be the only one on the planet capable of such mass destruction, but we’re also capable of compassion and ingenuity and large scale problem solving. How we face the coming weeks and months will test our worthiness as a nation, and a world. But we must take this test seriously. It isn’t just some everyday pop quiz—how we deal with this disaster may prove to be our final exam.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

When images of the Gulf get too disturbing...

Prothonotary Warbler
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
look at beautiful pictures of birds, and get out there and watch real birds, to remember what it is we're fighting for.

Birds Die Slowly

Brown Pelican
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
(Transcript of For the Birds, June 8, 2010)

My godfather, my Uncle Dick, was a sweet, sentimental Chicago firefighter who took pride in being 100 percent Irish. I spent my adult life living pretty far from Chicago, so I saw him mostly at weddings and funerals, which were numerous in our big family. Uncle Dick and I gravitated to each other because we were both rather quiet and both loved telling each other about our outdoors adventures. Dick was an avid fisherman his whole life. As a young man, he was also an avid hunter, but he’d put away his guns for good when he was in his twenties. Late in the evenings at our family gatherings, after he’d been drinking for a few hours and was in the weepy stage, he’d always tell me, as if for the first time, about the day he stopped hunting. He was out with a buddy and shot a Mallard hen. When the dog brought back the duck, Dick saw that she was still alive. He held her in his hands as he felt her breathing ebb and watched the light in her eyes go out. He couldn’t bring himself to eat her—he gave her and his gun to his buddy and never hunted again. But as if he needed to justify his continued fishing, he’d always say, “Fish are cold-blooded, Laura. I mean, really—they eat their young!”
Dick always had to reach a certain point in his drinking to tell me this story. And each time he told it to me, tears leaking into his beer mug, he emphasized how long it took that duck to die—and how he could see in the bird’s eyes that she was suffering, but just couldn’t bring himself to squeeze the life out of her. I don’t know which he felt guiltier about—shooting her in the first place or not being able to put an end to her suffering. Dick had rescued babies and children as a firefighter, and had pulled their dead bodies out of buildings, too—I think he’d felt the precariousness of life too often in his hands to use them so directly to squeeze the life out of even a duck. I stayed with him for a few weeks while he was dying of lung cancer from fighting all those fires. Even at the end, this dear tenderhearted man still felt guilty about the suffering he’d caused a duck.
When I took my first ornithology course, I read with horror about physiological studies done on animals in earlier decades, by scientists with more clinical detachment than my Uncle Dick or I could ever have mustered. In some laboratory experiments, Mallards, which aren’t even diving ducks, have lived as long as 16 minutes while held underwater, and remained alive as long as 27 minutes after their tracheas were clamped shut. In exsanguination studies, scientists have literally drained 1 percent of an animal’s blood every hour—the equivalent of draining a little more than one pint of blood from a 100-pound human being every hour. They learned that birds can lose much more of their body’s blood volume without going into shock than mammals can—pigeons can lose that volume every hour for 9 hours before dying. I wonder if those scientists watched the light ebb from their subjects’ eyes as they were recording the exact time of their deaths.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these gruesome studies and about my Uncle Dick as I’ve watched coverage of the millions of gallons of oil gushing in the Gulf of Mexico. A few news accounts have referred to “oiled feathers,” but the birds I’m seeing have oil gunking up their eyes, oil seeping into their nostrils and mouths and ears. I was just in Savannah, Georgia, last week watching Brown Pelicans plunging from great heights into the ocean—the way they’re adapted to catching fish—and felt sick thinking about the pelicans in the Gulf. Bewildered, suffering, but dying slowly, as birds do. Who from BP, Transocean Ltd., which owned the Deepwater Horizon rig leased to BP, and Halliburton, the contractor involved in cementing the well, is witnessing the light going out in these birds’ eyes? When a team from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology found an oiled but still-living pelican along with an oil-drenched Snowy Egret carcass, they called the BP wildlife rescue team, which took 90 minutes to arrive, and probably at least another hour to get it to their facility. These facilities can’t be everywhere along the coast, of course, but at times like these, I wonder how merciful it is that birds die so slowly.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Oil Hemorrhaging from the Gulf

Transcript of today's For the Birds:

Oil Hemorrhage
On April 20, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 people outright, injured others, and sent oil hemorrhaging into the sea from the drill site. This happened two days before Earth Day, and four days before the 21st anniversary of the day the Exxon Valdez, a single-hulled oil tanker, crashed into Prince William Sound, spilling at least 10.8 million gallons of oil into what had been pristine waters. The Valdez was carrying over 55 million gallons of oil, and although the 10.8 million gallon figure determined Exxon’s liability, Defenders of Wildlife claims that significantly more that that was actually spilled. Either way, Exxon’s spill has almost always been cited as the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history until now. Shipping disasters and oil rig blowouts have happened many times before. Both these American disasters were predictable, and both were preventable.

Two and a half years before the Valdez crash, on Dec. 15, 1976, in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, the Argo Merchant ran aground and broke apart southeast of Nantucket Island, spilling its entire cargo of 7.7 million gallons of fuel oil. We’d long known that so much oil being carried in a single-hull tanker was at huge risk of being released into the oceans, and over 100 countries have since banned the use of single-hull tankers in their waters, but the U.S.’s response was to continue to allow their use until 2015—and despite the sinking of the Valdez, Exxon continues to use these vulnerable ships even now, saving a relatively tiny amount of money to remain the richest corporation in the universe.

In April, 1977, the blowout of a well in an oil field in the Norwegian waters of the North Sea, leaked 81 million gallons. In response, Norwegians now impose strict standards for safety on these rigs. In 1979, another oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, Ixtoc 1, blew out, gushing an estimated 140 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf. This rig was operated by Mexico, so even though oil reached the Texas shore and affected American fisherman and killed birds that spend part of their lives in the United States along with fish and wildlife that swim in our waters, the oil industry and our official accounts never include this as an American disaster. The oil industry claims that the environmental effects were minimal, bizarre evidence that we’re willing to take the word of the oil industry whenever they manage to hide the damage that they do from the American media.

The term “oil spill” is so deeply entrenched in our jargon that it’s usually the term being used to describe what is happening in the Gulf today. The Exxon Valdez ship, huge as it was, held a finite amount of oil. The oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico each day now isn’t from the contents of a ship—it’s hemorrhaging from an undersea oil bed, and no one has any idea how much will gush out before the well is stopped. Even compared to Ixtoc 1, BP’s blowout has easily become the hugest environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Our birds—some of the species we northlanders hold especially dear, including hummingbirds, orioles, tanagers, and warblers—migrate over the open waters of the Gulf or along the shoreline en route to and from their tropical wintering grounds. One hundred percent of the wild migratory Whooping Cranes—both the ones that breed in Canada and the ones introduced in Wisconsin and taught to migrate by following an Ultralight aircraft—winter along the Gulf and depend for their survival on blue crabs. And right now huge numbers of birds, from enormous Brown Pelicans to tiny shorebirds, are dead or dying. Yet BP, the criminally negligent company that caused this gusher in the first place, has been preventing wildlife rehabbers, including their own volunteers, from getting access to the vast majority of oiled birds, and the Obama administration is still allowing them to call the shots. When the explosion occurred, I was too numb to speak out about it. But no longer. This week For the Birds will highlight what is happening in the Gulf, with accounts by ornithologists and bird rehabbers about the devastation to birds it is already causing, how much worse the situation will grow as fall migration and hurricane season kick in, and how this horrifying disaster will affect northland birds for years to come.