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Sandy Beaches, Oily Feet

by Hugh Powell
Photographs by Gerrit Vyn

Our Multimedia Productions team spent October in the Mississippi Delta, where they filmed shorebird migration and looked for signs of recovery in the Gulf, six months after the BP oil spill began. The scene was both spectacular and sobering.

“We saw humongous postbreeding flocks of pelicans working their way up and down the islands catching fish in the shallows,” said producer Gerrit Vyn. At the Isles Dernieres in the southwestern Delta, the team saw thousands of migrating shorebirds—18 species in all—with Peregrine Falcons in full pursuit.

In place of the oily mousse that lapped at the shores in summer, thickened mats of it now lie just out of sight under the sand. At a place called Whiskey Island, a warm fall sun had softened the oil. “Right when we got out of the boat, it smelled like a road-paving project,” Vyn said. “At first you don’t notice [the oil] on the birds, they’re moving so fast.”


But as the team reviewed their high-resolution footage, they saw Least Sandpipers (above,right) and Sanderlings (above, left) with sand and gluey oil coating their feet. Endangered Piping Plovers (left image) foraged nearby. The long bills of birds like Marbled Godwits (below) pointed to the continuing hazard that buried oil poses.


On their limited visit, the team saw oiled birds only at Whiskey Island—though with cleanup operations greatly reduced and most oil mats covered in sand, the full extent will likely go unnoticed. Our video footage will be provided to organizations working on the oil-spill aftermath and on efforts to restore the Delta’s embattled wetlands.