In the first of a series of on-the-ground accounts from our partners, we feature the work of the Coastal Bird Conservation (CBC) program. Conservation biologist and CBC director Margo Zdravkovic is on the Gulf Coast, conducting surveys of breeding, beach-nesting birds. Southern Co., in partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, funds the CBC’s work through the Power of Flight grant program.
Oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon offshore spill has made landfall in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle where the CBC is conducting breeding season surveys of beach-nesting birds. The American oystercatcher, Wilson’s plover and snowy plover, in particular, are species of high conservation concern. Their populations are in decline because of habitat loss resulting from unsustainable coastal development, disturbances caused by human activities and other factors such as climate change. Oil and other pollutants from the spill have put Gulf Coast populations of these species, as well as other imperiled migratory shorebirds, in further jeopardy.
Margo Zdravkovic, CBC director and co-founder of Conservian, coordinated and led the first comprehensive surveys of beach-nesting birds along the Gulf Coast throughout the early to mid-2000s.
“We discovered that 70 percent of the U.S. population of Wilson’s plovers occurs on the Gulf Coast and that coastal Louisiana, second only to Texas, provides habitat for approximately 26 percent of the U.S. total. The timing of this spill could not have been worse as nesting birds are currently fixed to breeding territories and are therefore unable to avoid impacted areas,” Zdravkovic said.
Zdravkovic and Steve Liptay, CBC assistant director, are leading statewide surveys for beach-nesting birds along the Gulf Coast. Survey teams consist of CBC research assistants and experienced partners.
“We walk long distances — approximately eight to 10 miles per day — to survey all potential beach-nesting bird habitat. The CBC is providing up-to-date survey data to federal and state agencies to ensure the implementation of protection for critical nesting sites wherever possible. We are assessing shorebird populations, documenting oil impacts in many remote areas and acting as first responders by providing location coordinates of oiled shorebirds to wildlife rescue and rehabilitation groups,” Zdravkovic said.
Incoming oil offshore has already affected brown pelicans and other plunge-diving birds. As the oil makes landfall, plovers and other shorebirds will increasingly become impacted. When shorebirds feed or bathe in water contaminated by the spill, the oil attaches to their feathers.
“When temperatures rise during the day, plovers thermo-regulate their nests either by incubating and shading or by ‘belly soaking’ and wetting their eggs with water droplets. Adults also incubate nests during the evening and in cool or wet weather to keep their eggs warm and dry. An oil-contaminated shorebird can transfer oil to eggs and young during incubation and brooding. Feathers contaminated with oil lose water repellency, potentially causing birds to perish from exposure,” Zdravkovic said.
Increased traffic from workers affects birds
Breeding shorebirds in impacted areas are also facing significantly more human and vehicular traffic. Compounding the damage from direct contact with the oil, nesting and foraging habitats are being impacted by workers driving in these areas and even landing helicopters. From BP cleanup crews to the National Guard, motorized vehicles are being used to transport workers and equipment. Beach-raking, boom placement, sand berm construction and inlet closings can eliminate beach-nesting bird habitat and crush eggs and flightless young. These activities can also cause shorebirds to leave their nests for extended periods of time, leaving eggs prone to overheating.
Efforts to clean up and impede the incoming oil are already causing serious impacts to shorebirds. During the 2010 beach-nesting bird breeding season, the CBC has been on the ground, documenting, monitoring and raising awareness of pre- and post-spill landfall damage and disturbance to shorebirds. These additional impacts have resulted in significant losses of shorebird nests and young and severe degradation of large areas of coastal habitat throughout the region.
“To date very little has been accomplished to manage the severity of this situation, and therefore an increase in new conservation actions are needed as soon as possible. We recently surveyed the Pass-A-Loutre Wildlife Management Area on the Mississippi Delta. This area is one of the first in Louisiana to be impacted by oil. Beach-nesting bird sites there are remote and accessible only by boat or helicopter, so cleanup efforts are progressing very slowly,” Zdravkovic said.
Four weeks after making landfall, wide mats of oil still remain on the beaches. Beach-nesting birds such as the Wilson’s plover are becoming oiled because of the slow cleanup response. Also at Grand Isle State Park in Louisiana, oil cleanup also has been slow, and oil that has collected in tidal pools has remained for weeks after making landfall.
“We support all efforts to stop oil from impacting our Gulf Coast shorelines, inlets and marshes. However, we feel that all such efforts should be conducted with great care and awareness of the wildlife species that inhabit the coastal zone. We are assisting beach managers and partners throughout the Gulf to minimize impacts to beach-nesting birds, shorebirds, and their habitats. One of our partners, Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama, is setting an excellent example of ways in which beneficial management practices can be employed to protect beach-nesting bird populations from pre- and post-oil spill impacts,” Zdravkovic said.
Bon Secour NWR is working closely with the CBC to locate, monitor and protect shorebirds by requesting surveys to identify nesting areas and by using recommended, standardized methods of protection such as symbolic fencing (posting and roping) to prevent eggs and young from being crushed by people, 4x4 vehicles and heavy machinery. The refuge has conducted inlet closings and berm construction to protect beach habitat, and so far throughout the process they have not lost a single plover nest or chick.