Gulf Coast Birds–And Ours–Doing Alright (for now)

Blue-winged teal by David Heritsch
Blue-winged teal feeding. Photo by David Heritsch.

On a recent chilly morning in southwestern Louisiana’s White Lake Wetland Conservation Area, Kim Trahan, a rice farmer who leases land in the state-owned area, surveyed the scene around him with satisfaction. To the south, a flock of several thousand green- and blue-winged teal circled just above a field he’d flooded a few months earlier for the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative, a federal program to create habitat for migrants away from areas tainted by the BP oil spill. Next, he spotted a huge flock of white-fronted and snow geese—some 10,000 birds, he estimated—approaching loudly from the other side. “This year I’ve seen the most ducks and geese I’ve ever seen,” said Trahan, who has farmed in the region for more than two decades.

Accompanying Trahan, Bob Dew, manager of conservation programs for the Lafayette Field Station of Ducks Unlimited, was also pleased. Contrary to the early fears of conservationists, less habitat for migratory birds had been directly hit by the spill than initially expected. On this December morning—at the peak of migration and about midway through the 2010 waterfowl hunting season—“we’ve received no significant reports of oiled hunters, dogs or ducks,” said Dew.  “Thankfully, the worst case scenario did not happen.”

It’s likely the federal initiative helped prevent problems for many southbound migrants by providing food before they reached the gulf. In addition, the effort–launched last summer by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)—played a critical role providing habitat for both migratory and resident birds during a time when the region was experiencing its worst drought in years.

In early November, Pete Heard, director of the NRCS National Agricultural Wildlife Conservation Center in Madison, Mississippi, said that “water pumped in by program participants is the only water available in some areas.” In all, more than 470,000 acres across 8 states were enrolled in the initiative. Ducks Unlimited alone signed up more than 75,000 acres, including Trahan’s fields in White Lake (where BP still owns mineral rights to the land, which it donated to the state in 2002).

But migratory birds are hardly out of the woods. “Our biggest concern,” says Dew, “is what may have happened to food resources used by diving ducks such as lesser scaup, redheads and canvasbacks.” If oil killed the birds’ prey—primarily dwarf surf clams and snails—the ducks would have moved to areas where they could find food, potentially depleting resources for other birds.

An even worse scenario would be if birds ended up feeding on contaminated prey, which could cause major physiological harm or impair reproduction for years to come.

That, in turn, would affect bird populations throughout the continent. The Gulf Coast “is the most important waterfowl wintering region in North America,” says Dew, “and a significant portion of those birds end up in Louisiana.”

Snow goose banding records from USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
Encounter locations for snow geese banded in coastal Louisiana. A total of 19,647 geese were banded during 1960-2010 producing 3,653 encounter records. Map by USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

The region’s critical importance to North American bird populations is illustrated dramatically in a recently published report and series of maps that summarize banded bird data. The USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center—which, along with the Canadian Wildlife Service, coordinates the North American Bird Banding Program—has records of more than 65 million birds that have been banded since 1960 and some 4.5 million recovered bands dating back more than 80 years.

Mapping band recoveries of nearly two dozen species—from snow geese (right) to white and brown pelicans to American woodcock to diving ducks such canvasbacks, redheads, ring-necked ducks and greater and lesser scaup—shows that continent-wide populations of many U.S. bird species depend critically on the Gulf Coast region during at least part of the year.

“Oil spills and other environmental problems that occur in the gulf are a threat to birds that live throughout the entire country,” says NWF Senior Scientist Doug Inkley. “What happens in the gulf does not stay in the gulf . . . which is why we all should care.”

NWF on the frontlines: Since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded last April, NWF wildlife experts have been working on-scene in the Gulf of Mexico region. Find out what they’re doing and how you can help.