It was on April 12 that we decided on an ocean theme for the summer issue of BirdScope. That was early spring in Sapsucker Woods, and beaches seemed a delightfully summery topic. We planned stories about magnificent ocean birds—migrating Ospreys, wave-riding albatrosses—balanced against some of the threats that face our modern ocean.
Eight days later, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven rig workers lost their lives, and oil gushed into the water at up to 2.5 million gallons per day. By the time relief wells are completed, this will likely be the largest accidental oil spill in world history.
Great Egrets breed alongside pelicans, herons, and spoonbills in Louisiana.
The Cornell Lab has committed to helping in long-term monitoring and recovery of the Gulf Coast’s saltmarshes and beach birds. As a first step in that work, in June, we sent a team of biologists and videographers to the Mississippi Delta of Louisiana. I went along for part of their seven-week stay.
What I saw was heartbreaking—beaches and marsh stained with oil as well as vast stretches of healthy coast that remain in harm’s way. People and birds alike were doing the best they could: oystermen still worked their reefs under the gaze of Magnificent Frigatebirds that perched on the bamboo reef markers. A few shrimp boats still trawled in unaffected waters, with Laughing Gulls shrimping alongside them.
A smudge of sand and shells called Breton Island held 40,000 Royal and Sandwich tern pairs. White birds in a continual stream carried fat speckled trout and slender eels to their young. Elsewhere, green mangroves were dotted white, blue, purple, and pink with herons, ibises, and spoonbills. I had never realized the aptness of the Tricolored Heron’s former name, Louisiana Heron, until I saw so many here.
I did see devastation—I saw islands full of wading birds and pelicans coated with oil. I saw Seaside Sparrows flitting among grass tops whose bases were thick with gunk. But the vast majority of oil is still at sea, and that’s what made my early visit so painful: the sense that this is a tragedy that’s still coming.
So we decided to dedicate the inner pages of this issue to the Gulf Coast’s birds—not just the handful of beach-nesting species you may have read about, but the hundreds of others that live in saltmarshes, feed offshore, migrate through, or winter there. We also feature a few ways the Cornell Lab is helping.
I’m grateful to outgoing BirdScope editor Laura Erickson for stepping back in and expertly taking the reins while I was down in the Delta. Laura will continue to work for the Cornell Lab on special projects from her home in Minnesota.