The oil spill, now 100 miles long by 48 miles wide, is being pushed onshore by the prevailing southeast winds and is expected to hit the Louisiana's Chandeleur Islands on Saturday.
Brown pelicans on Breton National Wildlife Refuge (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The state bird of Louisiana, the brown pelican, removed from the U.S. Endangered Species list only late last year, nests on the Louisiana coastal islands of Breton National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses the Chandeleur Islands. Their breeding season just began and many pairs are already incubating eggs.
"This spill spells disaster for birds in this region and beyond," says George Fenwick, president of the nonprofit American Bird Conservancy. "The complexity of the Gulf coastline, with numerous bays, estuaries, inlets, marshes and creeks, will make cleanup extremely difficult. Impacts could last for decades for much of the habitat, and some species may suffer significant long-term population declines."
The oil spill is fed by oil gushing at the rate of 5,000 barrels a day from a broken wellhead on the sea floor about 51 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana.
The pipe was left uncapped by the fiery explosion and sinking of the oil rig Deepwater Horizon last week in which 11 crewmembers lost their lives. Now lying on the sea floor 1,500 feet from the wellhead, the rig is owned by the Swiss company Transocean and was leased by BP Exploration and Production.
NOAA map shows the spread of oil from the red dot marking the open wellhead. Each day's spread is a different color.
BP as well as federal and state agencies are deploying skimmers and chemical dispersants in an attempt to control the oil spill, but today it reached the Louisiana wetlands at the tip of the Mississippi Delta.
"The terrible loss of 11 workers may be just the beginning of this tragedy as the oil slick spreads toward sensitive coastal areas vital to birds and marine life and to all the communities that depend on them," said Melanie Driscoll, a conservation director with the National Audubon Society, who is monitoring the situation from her base in Louisiana.
"For birds, the timing could not be worse; they are breeding, nesting and especially vulnerable in many of the places where the oil could come ashore," she said.
The Gulf Coast is important for hundreds of species of migratory birds, which breed, winter, and rest here during migration. The second Sunday in May is celebrated as International Migratory Bird Day, but this year there will be nothing to celebrate.
"It is ironic that next weekend is International Migratory Bird Day," said Fenwick. "At a time when we should be celebrating the beauty and wonder of migratory birds, we could be mourning the worst environmental disaster in recent U.S. history."
All coastal nesting species - herons, terns, skimmers, plovers, gulls, rails and ducks - are now present on the Gulf coast, including several species on the U.S. WatchList of birds of conservation concern.
North American summer songbirds fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico twice each year between their North American nesting grounds and wintering areas in Latin America.
Most of the spring migrants, such as warblers, orioles, buntings, flycatchers and swallows, move across the gulf during a two-week period from late April to early May.
Songbirds, not normally directly affected by oil spills, could be harmed by smoke from the burning oil set aflame on Wednesday in an attempt to minimize damage to marine life.
"Millions of our songbirds are crossing the Gulf now, and will arrive stateside perilously weak and undernourished from their journey," said Fenwick. "The smoke may well compound their precarious situation and potentially lead to birds failing to make it to shore, or arriving so weakened that they are unable to survive."
The impact to all these bird species depends on how long the leak lasts and what happens with weather and currents. The leak could persist for weeks or months, and end up being the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, bird conservationists fear.
Sites designated as Globally Important Bird Areas by the American Bird Conservancy are directly in the path of the spill.
Ten Sites at Most Immediate Risk are:
King rail with chicks (Photo courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation)
"In a catastrophe that imperils the entire Gulf Coast, offshore oil drilling has again proven to be unreliable and unsafe," said Richard Charter, Defenders of Wildlife senior policy advisor, Marine Programs.
"Wildlife refuges and estuaries in Louisiana, Mississippi, and possibly the coast of Florida, along with thousands of migrating birds, sea turtles, whales and dolphins, river otters and many other species lie potentially in the path of the spill," said Charter. "The extent of the environmental and economic impacts of this spill have yet to be seen, but clearly raise grave concerns for any expansion of drilling off of our coasts in the future."
"Although we are encouraged by the White House announcement that no new areas will be opened up to drilling until this spill has been fully investigated, Shell has announced plans to move forward with drilling in the Arctic, an area just as ecologically fragile as the Gulf, and where cleanup technology doesn't even exist," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"It is time for President Obama to reinstate the moratorium on all drilling off of U.S. shores, ensuring that we can deal with the situation at hand without opening another part of our country up to similar disaster," said Clark. "Hopefully this catastrophe will be a wake-up call for Congress to pass comprehensive climate change legislation that moves us beyond drilling along our fragile coastline and towards a cleaner greener energy future."
To report oiled or injured wildlife, call 1-866-557-1401.
To discuss spill related damage claims, call 1-800-440-0858.
To report oil on land, or for general Community and Volunteer Information, call 1-866-448-5816.
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