Gulf Researchers Gather Information On Migrating Birds
07/05/10 6:34AM Nancy Cohen  Download MP3
(Host) A conservation group in the Northeast is helping wildlife groups, along with state and federal agencies figure out the location of shorebirds that may be hurt by the Gulf oil spill. But gathering that information isn't easy.
part of a collaboration with northeast stations WNPR's Nancy Cohen reports on
researchers in Louisiana who are spending long, hot days counting small birds.
(Cohen) Imagine a labyrinth of marshy islands, accessible only by boat. Add a dose of choppy seas and surprise thunderstorms. Those are the conditions in which Margo Zdravkovic and her team from the Coastal Bird Conservation Program are searching for the Wilsons Plover, an eight-inch long bird.
(Zdravkovic) "We'll swing out to where its safe to pass those breakers and hopefully find what were looking for. "
From a small barge boat Zdravkovic is scanning the salt marsh where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf. She's searching for big
stretches of sand with sparse vegetation. That's what beach-nesting birds need.
(Zdravkovic) "They want to be able to see 360 all around them for predators. They don't like being backed up by tall vegetation."
(Cohen) Five years ago Zdravkovic a conservation biologist, led the first comprehensive survey of beach-nesting birds in the Gulf. On this follow-up survey, planned long before the spill, she's managed to stay mostly ahead of the oil.
today in an area called Pass A Loutre, the first place oil made land fall, it
has caught up with her. A clump of marsh grass is black with oil.
(Zdravkovic) "It's stuck to the vegetation. There's no real way to get that off."
We pass by an oil-prevention barrier , Steve Liptay, part of the bird
conservation team, spots a Brown Pelican, in trouble.
(Liptay) "It doesn't appear healthy. That birds oiled".
(Cohen) Zdravokovic calls the location in to the Louisiana Department of
Wildlife and Fisheries.
(Zdravokovic) "This one is by itself. It probably can't fly. You may be able to capture it. It's holding its wings out. It looks pretty badly oiled".
(Cohen) Wildlife biologists will try to rescue this bird, but they already have
five pelicans on their list today.
hours on the boat Zdravkovic finds the beach habitat she's been searching for.
The group pulls on waders, jumps in and walks towards the marsh.
(Solieau) "Female right there! Male and female over here!"
Field researcher Joshua Soileau spots three Wilson's Plovers. Brownish-gray on top, white underneath,
and a thick black bill. In the U.S. the Wilson's Plover is a species of high concern. And three
quarters of the U.S. population breeds right here in the Gulf. That worries Zdravkovic.
(Zdravkovic) "The chance for these areas they nest in to become impacted are high. So they can become even more imperiled."
It's steaming hot here in the back marsh. Out on the Gulf oil rigs line the
horizon. But the oil hasn't reached here yet
(Solieau) "OK. We got a Wilson's nest here."
While a Common Nighthawk squawks above us, we gather around the simple Wilson's plover nest: just a scoop in the sand cradling
three speckled eggs.
team counts 14 breeding pairs here. But at the next island bad news is in the
(Zdravkovic) "I smell it. Does everybody smell it?"
A waxy layer of oil is coating the sand. Blue crabs sit in oil, dying. Soileau
spots a male Wilson's Plover. But you can't tell its feathers are white.
(Soileau) "His underside looks orange. That's how much oil he's got on him. I mean he's real bad. It's on his back and everything."
(Cohen) Further down the beach, two small tents flutter in the wind. A pile of
shovels lies in the sand. The clean up crews are gone for the day
(Zdravkovic) "The cleaning should be going from daybreak to sundown. And it breaks my heart. I don't understand it. It's too little and too late. This could have been stopped."
(Cohen) Although these researchers can't save the oiled birds they plan to come back and survey here again. Their data will help the federal government figure out how much BP should pay for damaging natural resources.
VPR News, I'm Nancy Cohen.
(Host Outro) Northeast environmental reporting is part of NPRs Local News Initiative made possible, in part, by a grant from United Technologies.