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article imageLargest pelican-nesting area hit by oil, birds uncounted, may die

By Lynn Herrmann     Jul 16, 2010 in Environment
New Orleans - As oil giant BP prematurely celebrates the latest efforts at stopping its oil volcano in the Gulf of Mexico, disturbing news has emerged over how the US government tallies birds impacted by the disaster, in many cases, leaving them to die.
Biologists report oil has coated at least 300-400 pelicans along with hundreds of terns on Raccoon Island, the largest nesting area for seabirds along the Louisiana coast, signaling a sudden escalation in marine wildlife being destroyed by BP’s Gulf of Mexico calamity.
These numbers, however, may never make the official tally of oiled birds impacted by the catastrophe. The federal government only counts oiled birds that have been found dead or collected for rehabilitation. Oiled birds in the many nesting areas along the Gulf coast are typically left alone, uncounted in the official numbers that will ultimately help determine the fines, if any, that BP would be responsible for.
According to the Associated Press, the latest discovery of oiled birds was made on Raccoon Island during the past week by researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Cornell is considered one of the nation's premier institutions for bird research.
Marc Dantzker, a biologist with Cornell, said 30 to 40 pelicans discovered by his group were covered in oil, “head to tail.” Many more had visible oil blotches on them. Dead birds were also discovered, although no count of them was available.
"This is a major oiling event of an incredibly important seabird colony," Dantzker said. "Many of these birds will be dead soon — weeks and months. These blotches are deadly."
Lisa Williams, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said federal and state observers had documented only 68 oiled pelicans on the island.
It is estimated there are 10,000 birds nesting on the island, located in Louisiana’s Terrebonne Parish. It is a spit of land situated just outside the state's coastal marshes.
Compounding the growing problem is the belief that attempts at rescuing the birds will do more harm than good. Rescue attempts of the oiled birds could frighten healthy birds into oil-contaminated vegetation. Nests could be lost. There’s also the separation factor of taking young chicks away from their parents.
In some instances, the lay of the land is a barrier for rescue attempts. Mangrove structures can inhibit human movement.
When contacted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Michael Seymour, an ornithologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, responded: “Our standard operating procedure states that ‘If the percentage of the colony oiled exceeds 50%, a team of at least three highly qualified biologists (ornithologists, species specific managers, etc.) from LDWF and USFWS will collaborate and develop a unified decision and protocol to remove the birds.’  Fortunately, we have not reached oiling to this degree in any colony. It is never an easy decision nor is it taken lightly when we have to leave an oil impacted bird at a colony due to this disturbance issue.” 
Dantzker expressed surprise at the government’s low numbers on impacted birds, speculating they used a different method for counting the oiled birds.
"Come out and look with us," he said. "If you're on the island and using binoculars you will see those birds."
Throughout the Gulf region impacted by the oil, approximately 3,000 killed or oil-covered birds have been gathered by wildlife agencies since April 20, the day 11 workers died in the explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.
Williams declined to comment on the number of oiled birds that were not collected. She said the figures were being compiled and results would not be immediately forthcoming.
Raccoon Island’s bird colony was established by Louisiana in the 1980’s and has been an integral part of the brown pelican’s recovery as well as removal from the endangered species list just last November.
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