UPDATE: Worst bird colony devestation found – When it comes to the oil spill, we think we know what’s happening to the birds, but since they can’t tell us, we need to figure it out for ourselves.

As oil washes ashore along the Gulf Coast, ornithologists are asking bird watchers to keep an eye on nesting birds–not just near water, but hundreds of miles inland. Researcher Laura Burkholder says, “Wildlife biologists are monitoring species such as pelicans and plovers in the immediate path of the oil. But we need bird watchers across the country to help us find out if birds that pass through or winter in the Gulf region carry contamination with them, possibly creating an ‘oil shadow’ of declines in bird reproduction hundreds of miles from the coast.”

It turns out that anyone with an interest in birds can learn how to find and monitor nests. It involves visiting a nest for a few minutes, twice per week, and recording information such as how many eggs it contains, how many chicks hatch, and how many leave the nest. “Many birds that nest in backyards all across North America, such as Red-winged Blackbirds and Tree Swallows, spend part of the year along the Gulf of Mexico, where they could be affected by the oil spill,” Bukholder says. “Toxins often have profound effects on reproduction, and it’s possible that toxins encountered in one environment can affect the birds in another environment, after they arrive on their breeding grounds.”

Meanwhile, researcher Christopher Craft thinks the doom-and-gloom predictions for the Gulf oil spill’s effects on coastal wetlands are premature. “In fact, we cannot know the true effects until after the oil has stopped flowing,” he says. “At this point, the effects of the oil probably are limited to the above-ground vegetation. The roots that contain food reserves that enable the shoots to re-sprout seem to be unaffected. With chronic and repeated exposure to oil, though, the roots could die and the marsh surface collapse, since the roots hold the marsh and soil together. This could lead to disintegration of the marsh as it will convert to open water.”

The wetlands, which are home to a wide variety of birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects have been disintegrating for many years. “Coastal Louisiana’s wetlands have been under siege for a century or more,” he says. “The Mississippi River delta is sinking as a result of natural and human-caused activities. Delta regions naturally sink over time as the soft sediments that are deposited by river flooding consolidate and compact. The landscape is stable as long as fresh sediment is deposited by the annual river floods. However, human activities such as construction of dikes and levees that separate the river channel from its wetlands starve the marshes of sediment needed to maintain their elevation, and the land sinks.”

Researcher Paula Mikkelsen says, “Birds, sea turtles, and dolphins get most of the press, but all marine organisms in the Gulf of Mexico are threatened by the catastrophic oil spill. Every habitat, from intertidal oyster bars and mangroves to deepwater sand plains, depend upon clean water to survive. Over 15,000 species of animals and plants are known to inhabit the Gulf of Mexico. Most of these live well below the surface, and so little attention has been paid to them by the clean-up efforts. It’s one, big, complex marine ecosystem out there, and when one part of it fails, others will follow.

“Is everything going to die? Probably not: Marine animals and plants, despite their delicate nature, can and often do rebound from disasters such as this. But we can expect that there will be loss, and we can expect substantial, perhaps permanent, changes to the marine communities of the Gulf of Mexico and possibly the Florida Keys for a long time to come.”

UPDATE: Ornithologista have documented what may be the worst Gulf oil spill devastation of a major bird colony so far, on Raccoon Island on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. Biologist Marc Dantzker, first visited Raccoon Island on June 18, and found one of the largest waterbird colonies in the state to be oil free and in excellent health. But when he and his team returned on July 11 and 12 (after hearing bad reports from local biologists), they found oil present on rocks and all along the beaches. Almost all of the juvenile brown pelicans they saw had at least some oil on them, and they estimated that roughly 10% were “badly oiled.” Roughly 40% of juvenile terns also had visible oil on them.

Dantzker said he suspects high seas driven by Hurricane Alex and a full moon may have contributed to the disaster. He says, “The island has a single line of inshore boom on the bay side, and in some places this boom showed signs that oil splashed over the top and there was oil on shore behind these booms. What Gulf-side boom there previously was has been destroyed and is washed up in piles, or deep into the island.” The oil impact on the island’s massive bird colonies is by far the worst he has seen in the Gulf to date.

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