Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Saturday, July 31, 2010

BP: "We're not pulling out." Except they are.

There they go, carrying boom away from Venice, LA, just two days after they said they would not.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Where to see my Gulf photo album

I've started a Gulf photo set, and will continue to add photos, here.

One of the actual heroes in the Gulf Oil disaster

Drew Wheelan
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
The American Birding Association sent Drew Wheelan to the Gulf to keep track of what's been happening to birds. He arrived in May and has been there almost the entire time since, mostly in Louisiana. His reports are really worth reading.

Situation: Grave

I'm having some laptop issues (I really want to believe my Mac-devotee friends, but ... ) so haven't been able to post video yet, and spent too much of my "down" time working on that. But during the past three days, thanks to Shawn Carey of Massachusetts Audubon (who had already worked out all the logistics and included me in his plans), I got to see a lot of things. I'll be posting more in depth about this as soon as possible.

1) Taken a 4-hour boat ride out from Grand Isle into Barataria Bay, looking from the closest legal distance at some badly oiled islands and seeing and photographing oiled birds

2) Taken an 80-minute plane ride out from Houma to Raccoon Island to see the delta and the most well-documented oiled bird colony--and how so far nothing has been done to address the situation.

3) Photographed and taken video of cleanup along the public beach at Grand Isle State Park. It was very disturbing how superficial the cleanup has been.

4) Gone to a closed beach at Grand Isle State Park where I got a good look at just how deep the oil is in the sand. It made me sick--literally.

5) Interviewed the woman spearheading the hermit crab rescue operations to find out a heck of a lot more disturbing things about how nothing is being done to clean this ecologically important and fragile length of the beach.

6) Attended a public information meeting in Grand Isle. People here are ANGRY--their lives have been turned upside down! One woman who was getting compensation money from BP got the amount cut severely the day after she spoke to CBS News. The BP representative at the meeting insisted this was coincidental. I've never seen people at a meeting so unified in their outrage and hurt and fear for their health and their future.

7) Attended the 100-Day vigil on a beach on Grand Isle. People are grieving those who died in the explosion and how much they've lost since then.

When I have time to sit down and figure out these stupid computer issues, I'll post a lot more detailed looks, one by one, of each of these activities. But when you watch the news, here are the things I've seen firsthand:

1) Beaches in Grand Isle are NOT cleaned up.
2) There is still a LOT of oil in the water.
3) People in Grand Isle said at the public meeting that they are still seeing airplanes pouring COREXIT over the Gulf at nighttime.
4) Birds are still dying.
5) The birds that aren't dying from oil are having a very hard time finding food in the massive stretches of beach that have been oiled.
6) The official number of oiled wildlife is shockingly, disturbingly, and falsely below what it really is, and does not include a great many birds that have been documented as oiled.
7) BP has been put in charge of training volunteers to help, but have not done so. I'm talking to a lot of qualified people who have volunteered to help wildlife or with cleanup who have been turned away.
8) No one seems to be in charge. I'd love to see an Army general take over the operation. It takes a military mindset to coordinate responses on all fronts to face and defeat such a huge problem.
9) So far, the organizations I've talked with who are doing the most to help with news and information or with actual activities to HELP are very limited:
The American Birding Association. Their Drew Wheelan has been there since May, talked to a lot of people, and been working tirelessly to get Fish and Wildlife and other agencies and BP to help the birds out there, to no avail.
The American Bird Conservancy. They sent a team there for 6 days and put together a very reasonable report with specific recommendations. See their site and download a pdf-file of the report here:
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been documenting oiled birds.
Grand Isle State Park, which has been allowing their interpretive naturalist to coordinate volunteers to help hermit crabs.

I haven't talked to any rehab facilities yet except the tiny volunteer one working on hermit crabs. I tried to visit one in New Orleans but was turned away--they treat turtles and dolphins, and assumed I only wanted to see birds.

I'll post more, with photos, when I get somewhere where I can tackle and resolve my computer issues.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The worst is over?

Oiled Heron
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
We don't even know what the worst is yet. People are still not getting onto Raccoon Island, and this poor bird was on a boom off the very-oiled Cat Island, a major pelican breeding spot, just yesterday. Oil on the surface is very hard to see now, and is indeed evaporating and disappearing--really, sneaking into our atmosphere, but it will eventually go away and in most places, including where I took this photo, I couldn't smell it. But we have no idea how much oil remains beneath the surface, to pop up unexpectedly here and there. And we have no idea how much oxygen is being depleted under water where bacteria are gobbling it up.

And we also have no idea how many birds like this are suffering and dying on the island, out of sight of people in boats.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Here I am!

I made it to the Gulf! Temperature in St. Louis this morning when I set out from my dear friend Susan Eaton's--84. The temp fluctuated between 100 and 77 through the drive down 55. The full moon was rising, bright orangey, over Lake Pontchartrain. It took my breath away. And now I'm here, at a lovely B&B in Hauma.

Shawn Carey made arrangements for a boat trip tomorrow--and we may be taking a plane on Wednesday. I'll take as many photos and videos as possible. I'm hoping against hope that things are much better than I've heard.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Questions I want answers to when I go to the Gulf

Laughing Gull
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
1) How many birds have been oiled on Raccoon Island and other breeding colony sites?

2) What training have people been required to have to pick up oiled birds in past spills?

3) What training are people required to have to pick up oiled birds in this disaster? Are there enough responders to reach reported birds in a timely manner?

4) Oiled birds on Raccoon Island have been reported several times, but no one has yet rescued the still living birds or collected the dead ones. Why not?

5) If there is not enough manpower to collect dead birds, doesn't that make the official figures of oiled wildlife ludicrously low?

6) Shorebird migration is already underway, and songbird, waterfowl, loon, and Whooping Crane migration will be kicking in soon. What preparations are being made to ensure that oiled migrants are rescued in a timely way?

7) According to the website's fact sheet about oiled birds:
Once a call is received and it is determined to be
within the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response
area, a wildlife response team is notified. A team
equipped with appropriate personal protective
equipment (PPE) is dispatched from staging areas
that are based on the location of the animal, the
previous day’s response activities, and anticipated
movement of oil. Given the dynamic nature of
the situation, the weather, and the location of the
distressed animal, response time can vary.

Once the bird is located by the response team, it
is placed carefully in an animal carrier or kenneltype
container. The bird is then taken to one of
four area rehabilitation centers staffed by employees
of the Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research Center,
the International Bird Rescue Research Center,
and other paraprofessionals and volunteers,
all of whom are trained in wildlife rehabilitation.
The rehabilitation centers are located in Ft. Jackson,
Louisiana; Gulfport, Mississippi; Theodore,
Alabama; and Pensacola, Florida.

Questions: How many people and vehicles are available each day on the "Wildlife Response Team" to pick up oiled birds? And do wildlife rehab experts agree that one rehab site per state is sufficient? Do wildlife rehab experts agree that having some small mobile field stations, located where oil appears, is impractical?

I'm sure I'll be coming up with more questions when I get down there. I'm hoping to find that there are an adequate number of rehabbers collecting, transporting, and treating wild birds. I'm hoping that it's not true that birds reported to the Wildlife Response Team days ago are dying and the Response Team has not responded. I'm hoping that there are plans underway to monitor songbirds as well as waterbirds, and adequate trained teams will be able to respond to emergencies during migration.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Contacting my senators and congressman

Brown Pelican
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
I just got off the phone after calling the offices of Congressman Oberstar and Senators Franken and Klobuchar. I made these points:

1) There are hundreds--maybe thousands--of people willing and able to help with bird rescue and cleanup. It would be an easy matter (and would have been an easier matter during the past three months) to get more people trained for rescuing oiled birds in the field and transporting them to experts, and to get hazmat certification.

2) Right now no one is allowed to collect or touch any oiled bird, dead or alive, except Fish and Wildlife Service personnel. There are not enough of these people available for this under the best of circumstances, and this is NOT the best of circumstances.

3) Right now there are KNOWN breeding colonies where most or all of the remaining birds have been oiled and are dying or dead. These have been known for many days, with photographic documentation online from such prestigious and authoritative organizations as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Geographic, and the American Birding Association. This situation has been relayed to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

4) No one is helping these birds. No one. Birds are suffering and dying.

5) No one is counting these birds in the official numbers of oiled wildlife.

6) Marge Gibson, who has been involved in bird rehab in many oil spills--she is past president of both the International and National wildlife rehabbers organizations, has been involved in training people for wildilfe rehab (she is founder and director of the Raptor Education Group, Inc.), and was a project leader for Bald Eagle rehab after the Exxon Valdez spill said she has never seen trained and licensed rehabbers turned away from helping at these spills before. And in other spills, responsible people have been given training and allowed to get out there and pick up oiled wildlife (keeping away from recovery activities of course) so that the experts can focus on the actual treatment of wildlife.

7) I asked that they use their office to bring pressure on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make it much easier for people to rescue birds and to collect dead birds for a more accurate assessment of the cost to wildlife of this disaster.

The people who answered in all three offices were polite and professional. The man who answered in Congressman Oberstar's office said he'd connect me to their environmental person, but he'd stepped out so I'm to expect a call from him. The man I talked to took my name and phone number.

The person who answered in Al Franken's office tried to connect me with their environmental person but she was gone. He gave me her email address. Did not take my contact information.

The person who answered in Amy Klobuchar's office said she would relate my concerns to Senator Klobuchar. She was not interested in connecting me to anyone involved with environmental issues and did not take my contact information.

I do not know what legal constraints the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under here, but they have never before used their authority to stymie legitimate, licensed, and expert wildlife rescue operations. This must stop.

[Added at 3:16 pm] Congressman Oberstar's staff environmental expert, Jason, just called me. He understood the issue, and will be drafting a letter to the Department of Interior today asking that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service open up the process of collecting animals so people with hazmat training and training in rehab can help recover oiled birds. Keep your fingers crossed that this will help.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Gulf Coast, Here I Come!

Brown Pelican
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
(Transcript for For the Birds, 12 July 2010)

Gulf Coast, Here I Come
In 1970, America faced a lot of disasters at once—the Cuyahoga River was literally on fire; Lake Erie was declared dead; a 1969 oil spill from an offshore well released about 100,000 barrels of oil into California’s Santa Barbara Channel, killing well over 10,000 birds and fouling a long swath of coastline and all four northern Channel Islands; Whooping Cranes were hanging on by a thread with just two dozen remaining in the world; and Peregrine Falcons had been extirpated from all of eastern North America.
But 1970 was also an optimistic time in America. A man had walked on the moon less than a year before, within the same decade that John Kennedy imagined such a thing was even a possibility. Most people still had personal memories of triumphing on two huge fronts in World War II in less than four years. There was no question in people’s minds that America was a place of achievement. Even though the nation was virulently partisan, divided on the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, and other issues, we set aside our differences to clean up the air and water and save charismatic species that we all shared.
Sure enough, less than three years after the first Earth Day in 1970, Congress and an extremely conservative administration had passed and signed into law a host of meaningful environmental legislation including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act, strengthened the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, established the Environmental Protection Agency, banned DDT, and lowered the speed limit to 55. These led to real, measurable, and palpable improvements in environmental quality in short order.
Four decades later, we’re facing another environmental catastrophe of national proportions. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has already killed far more animals than is possible to quantify—as of July 12, people have collected almost two thousand dead oiled birds, almost 500 dead sea turtles, and 59 dead dolphins and other mammals. This doesn’t count dead animals people have seen but not been able to pick up, such as the thousands of dead birds in huge nesting colonies, nor the vast number mired in the muck that will never be acknowledged.
I’m headed down to the Gulf next week to see for myself what is happening to the habitat and the birds that I love. I don’t know that my heart can stand to be there more than a couple of weeks at a time, so I’ll return again on and off throughout migration, winter, spring, and next year’s breeding season. Now that my rehab license is expired, bearing witness is the only way I can help at all. This catastrophe is bad enough on its own, but unlike past disasters, this one’s insidious stain seems to have seeped into the very soul of America, paralyzing us with despair and cynicism. Can we trust the government? The media? BP, Halliburton, or Transocean? Non-profits? Federal judges? Anyone? I no longer know who to believe, so I’m headed down there to see for myself. I’m hoping against hope to prove that we Americans have not become apathetic and helpless under corporate rule the way the Soviet people became under their totalitarian regime. I’m hoping against hope that with sound information, people are willing to rise to this occasion and save our imperiled natural world once again. Apathy is not my forte. So Gulf Coast, here I come.

(This trip will begin on July 24.)