Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Gulf Coast Oil Spill

Make sure you're keeping up with Drew Wheelan's blog. He's finding a lot of shorebirds right now. Gulf Coast Oil Spill

Friday, August 20, 2010

When numbers get serious

This was my For the Birds script for the program that aired August 4, 2010:

As of August 3, 2010, a total of 5154 oiled birds have been collected and reported on the official Deepwater Horizon Response Consolidated Fish and Wildlife Collection Report. Of these, 1699 were collected alive and 3455 were collected dead. So far, 594 of the treated birds have been released back into the wild, far away from the oiled areas where the birds were retrieved.

The data released each day in the Consolidated Report is accurate and extremely valuable. But it is not in any way a complete accounting of the numbers of birds affected by the spill. I find it troubling that because this is the only official number out there, the media and many organizations are using it as the definitive number of birds oiled. Defenders of Wildlife even cites the figure on their website as the “Total Impacted.” But this figure leaves out all the birds people are reporting to BP or the Fish and Wildlife Service that have not actually been collected. Many birds are seen and reported while still capable of flying away and so no attempt is made by officials to collect them—this includes the badly oiled night-heron and Great Egret that I saw on Cat Island in Barataria Bay, and the lightly oiled Great Egret I saw at Grand Isle State Park, all in Louisiana. Because of rules regarding disturbing nesting colonies, hundreds of badly oiled birds that were carefully documented and reported have not been collected.
It makes sense that BP and Fish and Wildlife are maintaining official, verifiable numbers of the birds collected in the spill. And keeping track of oiled birds that haven’t been collected would be a difficult task: someone might count and even photograph a large number of oiled birds on one island, and then on another island, with no way of knowing whether a few or a great many had island hopped and were counted twice. So it’s understandable that such an amorphous number isn’t part of the consolidated report. But it’s troubling that on BP’s website with the consolidated number, the text makes it sound like the total number of birds collected is greater than rather than less than the total number of birds oiled. The report emphasizes, “Some fish and wildlife reported here have likely died or been injured by natural causes, not due to the oil spill. Due to the increased number of trained people evaluating the spill impacted areas, it is also likely that we will recover more naturally injured or dead fish and wildlife than normal.”

Although this is true, the large numbers of badly oiled dead and dying birds seen and photographed on breeding colonies that were never officially collected may very well outnumber the entire total number of birds collected. Raccoon Island alone, which was very heavily oiled, is known to harbor 10,000 nesting birds—and eyewitnesses estimated the number showing signs of oil at 50 to 80 percent. Fish and Wildlife disputes this figure, but if they’ve sent any of their own biologists to do an accurate and verifiable count, that information has not been released. Meanwhile, a couple of members of Massachusetts Audubon and I did a flyover of Raccoon Island two full weeks after oil reached its shores. We were very high up, but some of the photos Shawn Carey took show pelicans lying flat on the ground with their wings spread—something they just don’t do when healthy. From so far above, we saw plenty of oil along the shore and washed into parts of the island interior, and could see that the badly oiled booms that had washed ashore had still not been removed and replaced with boom that could protect the island from additional oiling.

All this is to say that although the official number of oiled birds is a useful index, it’s far from the total number of birds oiled in this disaster.

A more accurate figure would be difficult or even impossible for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, or anyone else, to produce. But it’s still important to recognize that the official figures being given out for oiled birds are far smaller than the actual numbers of birds that have so far been harmed by this disaster.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Covering up the damage

Rick Outzen documents in his blog how fishermen were instructed to ignore large tar balls and the Coast Guard's use of dispersants. It's valuable information, and I know it's true because I talked at length with a boat captain in the Vessels of Opportunity program who was sent out with a BP team to collect water samples. They collected some where he could clearly see a lot of oil--and then BP threw out those samples because they had been "collected improperly." But he observed the whole process, and knew they were collected in exactly the right way.

Read Rick Outzen's blog post here.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Huge fish die-off in Louisiana

The American Birding Association's Drew Wheelan reports a huge die-off of fish in Port Fourchon, Louisiana, yesterday.

When I get home, I'm calculating how much I spent on gas on this trip and donating it to a few worthy causes--the American Birding Association being Number One. Drew's reports have been consistently accurate, and he's doing a far, far better job of reporting the news than any news professionals. To stretch his finances farther so he can continue to report as long as possible, he's even been sleeping in his truck. I'm proud to know someone with his commitment, integrity, and courage.

Monday, August 2, 2010

To disperse or not to disperse. That was the question.

Now that well over a million gallons of COREXIT have been released into the Gulf, both from the site of the ruptured well and sprayed from above, we can expect years of debate about whether using dispersants was a wise decision or not. When many of the facts are unknown and we're dealing with probabilities, sometimes reasonable minds can reach different conclusions. But over time as we collect more data in the Gulf, we should be able to learn whether it is easier to clean up oil on the water's surface and on the beaches than it is when it's been dispersed. We want to know at what point dispersed oil droplets become too diluted to cause problems. Think about it. If you have 200 million gallons of pure oil, it's a big toxic mess. If dispersants dilute it to half strength by spreading it over double the volume, it's still extremely toxic, and now its toxicity has spread. At what point does the dilution make it weak enough to offset the vastly increased amount of water it's contaminating?

EPA research indicates that oil is far more toxic than dispersants, including COREXIT, and that for the most part, dispersants plus oil are no more toxic than oil alone. But in my mind, the debate is only tangentially about the toxicity of the dispersant, and more fundamentally about what the dispersant does to the oil and where dispersed oil goes. My focus of course is on birds, and it's virtually certain that many more birds would have been conspicuously oiled at this point in time if no dispersants had been used. But because the level of use of dispersants in this spill is unprecedented, we have no idea what the long term effects will be, on either the Gulf ecosystem or on the birds that depend on it.

Had the oil all surfaced at the point of the blowout, booms would have been more effective at containing it and skimmers more effective at pulling a lot of it out. But without dispersants, more thick crude oil would have contaminated beaches. With dispersants, the oil is breaking up into tinier droplets which can stay within the water column much longer before floating to the top in slicks or sinking into the bottom muck. We don't know how masses of oil are acting beneath the surface, nor whether the bulk of it will slowly float to the top to evaporate, will sink to the bottom to contaminate bottom feeding animals, or will float within the water column indefinitely. We don't know how tiny dispersed droplets in the water column might affect a loon or pelican diving through a plume. We don't know how long dispersed oil will be washing onto beaches, nor at what concentrations this dispersed oil will be, nor whether it's likely to reduce numbers of the tiny creatures that sandpipers and other birds eat. There is far more that we don't know than what we do know. The Gulf of Mexico promises to be a rich source of research projects for decades to come.

Meanwhile, it's too late to retract the decision to use dispersants to deal with this crisis. If substantial evidence proves that it was a big mistake, there will be no magic wand to get the dispersants out of the water. But now that it's happened, it's essential that we carefully and objectively evaluate all the evidence we can gather to figure out whether using dispersants really was the lesser of two evils or not. Bird deaths from starvation may not be as conspicuous and gruesome as bird deaths from heavy oiling, but the birds' suffering may well be as great. And depending on how plumes of dispersed oil act, we may be seeing oiled diving birds for weeks, months, years, or even decades to come.

The final decision on whether dispersants are an appropriate way to respond to an oil spill in the future should be made based on doing the greatest good for the entire ecosystem, from plankton and shrimp to birds and dolphins. The Coast Guard, the EPA, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Centers for Disease Control should be making these decisions together, uninfluenced by the desires of the corporation that caused the disaster in the first place, especially when that company has a vested interest in minimizing the appearance of the disaster.

Exxon and a team of other companies are right now working together to develop a sounder response for dealing with future oil spills in the Gulf. Experimenting with dispersants in such a precious body of water when the stakes are so very high may or may not prove to have been justifiable. Either way, a sound, long-term investigation of the results will help us make future decisions based on knowledge rather than guesses.

Some reassuring news

Today I talked to someone who works on vessels on cleanup here in Alabama. He told me that when they find any wildlife in distress or any dead wildlife, they call a number--he thinks for US Fish and Wildlife--and are required to stay nearby until the response arrives. He said the response is always pretty quick, and added that he and his co-workers would be scared to try and rescue the birds themselves for fear of either getting hurt (and as a former rehabber, I can attest that it would be very dangerous for someone without training to grab a Great Blue Heron!) or causing the bird more distress by chasing it when they don't have proper equipment or knowledge of how to handle them or house them. So it sounds like what is happening in the waters off Alabama, and the protocol when cleanup workers find oiled wildlife, are genuinely about as good as we could hope for.

Great discussion of Winter Wren split

Winter Wren
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
The AOU recently split the Winter Wren into eastern and western species. (Yay! Yet another lifer I got just by reading the morning ornithological news!) Here's a great in-depth discussion on "Biological Ramblings."