Report: Many Birds Still Face Threats From Gulf Oil

Six months after the start of the BP oil spill, the Audubon Society reports that many species of migratory birds and shorebirds face continuing threats from oil and tar balls. NPR's Melissa Block talks to Audubon's chief scientist Tom Bancroft about the new study.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Mary Louise Kelly.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And Im Melissa Block.

It's been nearly six months now since the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. The BP well was capped but not before more than four million barrels of oil spewed into the Gulf. Today, the National Audubon Society releases a report, saying residual oil and chemicals pose substantial ongoing risk to bird population in the Gulf, which Audubon calls Grand Central Station for tens of millions of migrating birds.

Tom Bancroft is Audubon's chief scientist. He's been out counting and monitoring birds in effected areas along the Louisiana coast.

Dr. Bancroft, welcome to the program.

Dr. TOM BANCROFT (Chief Scientist, National Audubon Society): Thank you. It's really good to be here.

BLOCK: The hope was from some scientists that birds might end up avoiding the most heavily oiled areas. That apparently is not true. Theyve been going right to the oiled parts.

Dr. BANCROFT: That's correct. When we were down there doing the survey, we saw a lot of birds in the areas that oil had come ashore and fewer birds west of that where there hadn't been oil, or very little come ashore. And partly the reason was that's the best bird habitat. It was a very diverse habitat with lots of marsh system, beaches, barrier islands, shallow estuaries. And it just is good feeding habitat so they're attracted to that.

BLOCK: And as you're going around now, six months out, are you still seeing visibly oiled birds?

Dr. BANCROFT: Well, I probably was able to look really carefully at 2,000 to 2,500 individual birds, and I only saw three individuals that had oil on. So that was good. That was a very low number and I was pleased that that was how few we saw.

BLOCK: So may be not as bad there, as you feared. But I guess the fear now is what you can't see.

Dr. BANCROFT: Exactly. I think at this stage of the game, it's what the oil might be doing and the dispersants that was used to the food chains; are there decreases abundance of food out there in the system; has it affected the behaviors and the reproductive ability of food things, like menhaden, which is one of the fish, or crustaceans or bivalves, all that are important food items for birds.

BLOCK: Dr. Bancroft, can you give us a sense when you're walking around what it looks like? Are you seeing tar balls still on the sand? Are you seeing oil oozing up as you walk?

Dr. BANCROFT: Right. Well, we saw several things on Grand Isle State Park where we walked along the beach, there was one place there where oil was oozing up out of the sand. And they had a crew - BP had a crew there cleaning that oil as rapidly as it was oozed up. We also saw on Grand Isle, as well as on Chaland Headland, tar balls along the edge of the surf. As the waves were coming in, it was bringing tar balls. And while we were down there, on an island I didnt get to, they had some fresh, still oily oil come ashore with some of the wave action that happened.

BLOCK: Dr. Bancroft, I keep thinking about this image of the Gulf as Grand Central Station for migrating birds. And I imagine we are right now in the thick of fall migration. What are you seeing down there? What birds are coming through, and how do they seem to be adapting or adjusting to this environment?

Dr. BANCROFT: When we were down there, there were a lot of the shore birds had come south already. We saw a lot of Sanderlings along the coast. You know, one of the concerns we have is this is an additive threat thats on top of all the normal things that birds face in their lifecycle. And we're dealing with a lot of threatened birds down in the system.

Piping Plover is an endangered species, Wilson's Plover, American Oystercatcher, Least Terns, Black Skimmers, Seaside Sparrows, those are all species of conservation concern. And we've added another threat that may be causing a little bit of additional mortality to the system, may be causing a lot of mortality - we dont know. And is that going to be enough to be a tipping point for some of these populations and we'll start to see them decrease? We're going to need to pay attention to this for years to come to really understand the effects on bird populations.

BLOCK: Years to come, do you have a sense of that timeline? How many years it might be?

Dr. BANCROFT: Well, we do the Christmas Bird Count every winter and thats going to give us some snapshot this winter on whether we see some changes in populations. But we'll need to follow this probably for a decade or more into the future, to really know this response. Thats what they had to do in the Exxon Valdez oil spill was really look at it for two decades after the spill to see what the effects were on the populations, and how some things recovered from that.

So, you know, I expect we will be in this for many decades to come.

BLOCK: Well, Tom Bancroft, thanks for talking with us.

Dr. BANCROFT: Thank you very much. It's been great to be here.

BLOCK: Tom Bancroft is chief scientist with the National Audubon Society and survey leader for the report out today: "Oil and Birds Too Close for Comfort."

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