Thursday, October 28, 2010

Pelagic Caribbean seabirds found in oil spill response

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has made the summary data available for seabirds that were found in the oil spill recovery. The report is available here:

Below is a tedious listing of the dead birds found. The interesting thing is that any of the pelagics were found at all. The recovery rate for a bird oiled 150 km out at sea and subject to burning and pick up in oil collecting boats could not be better than 3% and is likely less than 1%.

We should have been out there in a boat dropping marked bird carcasses but how were we supposed to know.

Especially for Masked Boobies and Audubon's Shearwaters, we should multiply their numbers by a factor of between 33 and 100 to get a minimum estimate of the number of actual dead birds. For the nearshore species, recovery probably mirrored that of Alaska during the Valdez spill where they estimated recovery at about 10%.

The other outstanding questions are where exactly were each of these birds found and did the birds that were found alive survive. I can't imagine a situation where you would catch one of these things alive unless it was injured or a young, starving fledgeling. One should be able to detect if it is a young of the year bird from date it was found, plumage, molt, and wing proportions, at least for a shearwater, but most of these carcasses may have already been destroyed.

For Caribbean seabirds, the results are as follows:

Bermuda Petrel and Black-capped Petrel - none found

Audubon's Shearwater: 3 total birds. One oiled, dead bird. One dead bird with no visible oil. One live bird with no visible oil. There were also 4 dead, unidentified shearwaters. Three had no visible oil. For the other, the Oiling status was not reported (?).

White-tailed and Red-billed Tropicbirds: none found

Brown Pelicans - 738 were found. 290 had no signs of oil (187 dead, 103 alive). 259 were oiled (111 dead and 148 alive). 189 were dead but oiling status was not reported. We don't have the data, but I assume most if not all were of the North American subspecies (Pelicanus occidentalis carolinensis) rather than the Caribbean subspecies (P. o. occidentalis).

Masked Boobies: Of the 3 breeding boobies in the region, only Masked Boobies were found. There were 8 total birds. 4 were dead and had no outward oil signs. 2 were alive without signs of oiling. 2 others were alive and oiled.

Magnificent Frigatebird: 7 were found one dead with no sign of oil, 2 dead with signs of oil, 2 alive with signs of oil, and 2 dead where the oiling status was not reported.

Laughing Gulls: 2654 - 1208 dead, no oil, 256 alive no oil; 704 dead, oiled, 201 alive and oiled; 285 dead, oiling status not reported)

Least Terns: 106 - 40 dead no oil, 5 alive no oil; 43 dead oiled, 6 alive oiled; 12 dead status not reported.

Royal Terns: 270 - 83 dead, no oil, 28 alive, no oil; 92 dead, oiled, 47 alive, oiled; 20 dead no report of oiling status

Sandwich Tern: 63-20, 6; 18, 10, 9

Roseate Tern - 0 (but there were 107 unidentified terns: 50, 1; 37, 1; 18

Sooty Tern - 0

Bridled Tern - 0

Brown Noddy - 0

Black Noddy - 0

Double - crested Cormorants - 18 - 10, 5; 0,1; 2

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Oil settling to the bottom

New evidence is confirming that the oil has not disappeared but is settling to the bottom and contaminating organisms there. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Aftermath

The oil has finally stopped flowing. We don't really know how much oil spilled, but its within the ballpark of 4.9 billion barrels, we're told. Some say it has been eaten up by bacteria, along with the dispersant. Conservatives say it's another environmentalist exaggeration, like climate change, evolution, and atomic theory. Some say it is dispersed throughout the Gulf and will continue to affect the wildlife in the deep ocean for a long time to come. I recommend reading this article from Julia Whitty of Mother Jones, who details some of the vulnerable wildlife of the Gulf ecosystem and points out that the glowy prognostications and public relations campaign by BP may not tell the whole story.

We lucked out in the Bahamas region because the winds all summer have been strong out of the East, pushing water into the Gulf and preventing large surface plumes of oil from entering the Gulf Stream. Our luck was apparently Texas' bad fortune, in that they had oil pushed onto their beaches and deeper waters.

I had an interesting discussion with a conservative friend this weekend who pointed out the standard talking point from conservative blogs (e.g. that the amount of oil estimated to have spilled (4.9 million barrels = 206 million gallons; would only fill 17.7% of the Louisiana Superdome, while the Gulf of Mexico has a volume of water equal to 550 million Superdomes. While it's easy to break down that statistic for how deceptive it is (the spill happened in one small section of the gulf, one gallon of oil can pollute many thousands of gallons of water when dispersed into it or spread on top of it, organisms magnify the oil up the food chain, and so on), he went further and expounded that deepwater drilling might be a lot better than shallow drilling because a spill won't hit land as easily and can be dispersed throughout the ocean.Not wanting to have a pointless shouting match at a 3 year old's birthday party, I left it with a "we'll just see what happens as we learn something about the effects of the spill."

We still have almost no data about what this spill has done to the ecology of the Gulf by affecting important plankton and animal populations (whales, dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, seabirds, life at the deep scattering layer, Bluefin Tuna, and so on). Scientists will be studying this for decades, and I would be so happy if BP is right, but everything I've learned about chemistry, fragile ocean food webs, and sensitive long-lived animals at the top of those food webs tells me that this prediction that "the spill is over and everything will just go back to the way it was" sounds too good to be true. We can't go by what we see - beaches that are cleaned up or fish and shellfish that are still alive right now. The big question is what will there be in 10 years? Will parts of the food web fail or will certain species just disappear, like the herring in Prince William Sound did after Valdez? I can say with all honesty that I hope BP is correct, but I expect that they are almost exactly wrong.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Cay Sal Bank Still Free of Surface Pollution from the Horizon Spill

I recently participated in the third trip to the Cay Sal Bank aboard HMBS Nassau. This expedition visited the Cay Sal Bank to collect pre-impact assessment data including sediment samples on the beaches. The seabirds are in fantastic condition with no sign of oiling. Thousands of chicks of Sooty Terns, Brown Noddies, Bridled Terns, and Audubon's Shearwaters were on one of the cays.

It appears that the very strong easterly winds of the last 3 months have saved the Cay Sal Bank in the short term, for which I am very happy. Now the question is when will those winds stop blowing, allowing the loop current to begin funneling oil out into the Gulf Stream, how toxic will that degraded oil be, and how much damage is being done to the ecosystem underneath the water. The effects of the spill could play out over many years, but at least the direct effects that many of us feared at first have not impacted the islands along the Gulf Stream so far.

Having seen what an unspoiled, wild place the Cay Sal Bank is, I hope it can be recognized as a biosphere reserve and a model for what an island ecosystem should look like when left as a wilderness. Here's to hoping that oil leases and development plans for the Bank are never sold or fulfilled.

Saturday, June 12, 2010 is back online

Most of is now operational again. I'm still debugging a few pages and images, but the account is transferred over and the text about each species is online. Let me know if you find any issues.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

American Petroleum Institute's Ad on wicbirds' Blog!!

API has been running an ad on Google adsense that shows up on our blog! If you watch the ad, the president of API points out that they've drilled thousands of wells in the Gulf of Mexico and produced billions of gallons of oil and cubic feet of natural gas, but that this event indcates that they need to reexamine their practices so they can keep their employees safe.

While I agree with the employee part, they totally left out the environmental part. What about all the invertebrates, fish and birds? What about the fishermen that can't make a living any more? What about the beach communities that will go under when their tourism revenue goes away? It's fairly offensive that they would make a statement and not mention all those lives they've ruined, but to be honest, it's not much different than anything they've said in the past. I would not want to be those people in 20 years after they've led the charge against doing something about climate change and stonewalled for decades. They will be history's villains. Watch their ad if you want. I'm all for openness, even for chronic deceivers, but I could not let it sit on my blog without a response.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

BP Ordered Removal of Mud Against Expert Recommendations

This report, if true, is hard to take sitting down. is down right now

If you're looking for, it is down temporarily. I apologize for this delay. It's a problem with the Verizon-Yahoo breakup. I'll have it up ASAP. Until then, if you would like to see Dave Lee's identification guide for birds in the gulf, email me and I will send it to you electronically. Likewise for any information about the breeding sites.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Oil Drilling Off North Carolina

David Lee, the co-editor of this blog, has been studying the seabirds of the North Atlantic since before I was born, literally. As curator of birds at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, he spent thousands of hours observing and collecting seabirds off the coast of North Carolina, and he discovered, among other things, that the productive fishing area off of Hatteras Island called "The Point" by fishermen is also a critical feeding area for the rarest seabirds in the Atlantic Ocean, including Fea's Petrels from Cape Verde and Madeira, Trinidade Petrels which breed 7,700 Km to the southeast, at Trinidade and Martin Vaz Islands, Bermuda Petrels, which were thought to be extinct for 300 years until a handful were discovered nesting on offshore rocks in Bermuda, and Black-Capped Petrels, which once nested on islands around the Caribbean and are now hanging on in Haiti by nesting in inaccessible cliffs hundreds of meters in the air.

Since the 1980's, oil companies have been lobbying to open the continental slope of North Carolina including "The Point" to drilling, and Dave has been a leading voice of opposition. Here's an article from the Wilmington Star-News in 1989. Note that oil drillers have used the same lines about safe drilling for years. Let's hope this idea of opening North Carolina's Outer Banks to offshore drilling will now go away in light of the Horizon disaster, but I'm not holding my breath.

Projected Path of Surface Oil mirrors the path of Shearwaters

If it behaves like the virtual dye simulated in this study, the surface oil will be lingering exactly in the primary foraging area for August and September of Audubon's Shearwaters and White-tailed Tropicbirds, along with Black-Capped Petrels, Bermuda Petrels, and other rare seabirds. It should also show up in the Cay Sal Bank and the coast of Cuba. All the East Coast beaches and fisheries to Cape Hatteras will also get high concentrations of fouled water with PAHs that can linger and contaminate animals like shrimp and oysters long after the tar balls are gone. This model can't account for storms or fronts. Where the huge plumes of undersea oil will go is another question entirely.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Stock in BP?

I don't really understand BP's stock price. Is the company worth more than the tourism and fishery industries of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama?

BP has a market capitalization of $134,000,000,000 and a share price of $42.95. It has fallen from $60 per share before the spill (Market Cap = 187,000,000,000).

Thus, Investors are pricing the oil spill at $53,000,000,000.

What do you think the oil spill will cost?

I am in denial; Cross your fingers for Cay Sal Bank

I returned from the Cay Sal Bank Rapid Ecological Assessment on Wednesday. The Bank is amazing. Fisheries, Coral Reefs, Sea Turtles, Seabirds, and long, perfect beaches. Now let's just cross our fingers and hope for a miracle that spares the Cay Sal Bank.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Article in the Nassau Tribune about the Cay Sal Assessment

The Nassau Tribune has a story about our trip. I'm in Nassau now getting ready to head out tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Cay Sal Bank Expedition Planned

The Bahamas National Trust, the Royal Bahamian Defense Force, and the Government of the Bahamas are sponsoring a rapid assessment of the Cay Sal Bank land and water resources. I leave for the trip tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Few oiled birds being reported

In today's Press-Register, Dave Helms reports that wildlife officials give a total of 10 oiled birds from Louisiana and 4 from Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida combined. The lone occupant of the wildlife resource center in Theodore, AL was a royal tern that was found oiled but is recovering after being cleaned.

I'm using a Google Feed to monitor all reports about injured wildlife. I'll post links as they come in.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Species Profiles for Seabirds in the Gulf of Mexico

In work for NOAA, Dave Lee prepared species profiles for all the seabirds in the Gulf of Mexico. This guide might be helpful to volunteers and workers trying to prep for fieldwork or to identify oiled or dead birds found.

(Update 5/18/2010: a more complete version):

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Extent of the spill after three weeks

The Horizon Spill has been ongoing for three weeks. At this point, it has affected all the waters of Louisiana. There is an awful lot of crude on the water surrounding the well that has not gotten to land and has not yet gotten into the Gulf Stream. The news media has lost interest. If they don't shut it off soon, it will cover the entire Gulf Coast from Galveston to Pensacola.

They are performing necropsies on over 100 sea turtles and a handful of dolphins that have washed up on the beach. The number of dead birds out in the pelagic waters around the well head and up in the breeding colonies is not being reported.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Seabirds on the Cay Sal Bank

Outside of the Gulf Coast Shoreline, one of the areas in greatest threat from the oil spill is the Cay Sal Bank.

This seamount southeast of Florida and north of Cuba is a giant sandbar at the point where the Gulf Stream splits and heads primarily north towards Florida with that small stream moving east along Cuba's Coast. The bank has fantastic coral reef ecosystems and a series of limestone cays around the edge of the bank. Because it is remote and inhospitable to humans, it retains large seabird populations.

The dean of Bahamian ornithologists, Alexander "Sandy" Sprunt, who recently passed away, estimated a total of 800 Bridled Terns, 20,000 Sooty Terns, and 3,500 Brown Noddies nesting on the cays on the bank in 1996. No formal surveys have been conducted since then, but we do have reports from Haitian refugees who were stranded on one of the cays and survived by eating Audubon's Shearwaters.

This site is known for its birds and its coral. Both are in danger from the oil spill. I hope we can get some survey teams out this summer to assess the status there.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

NOAA forecast for spill locations

They are only forecasting one day ahead. I have yet to find any forecast of the location of the plume of water with oil dissolved into it from the dispersants used.

It's very strange how the spill extent jumps across tens of kilometers of oceans each day. I guess that results from the 1.5 Km depth of the sourcepoint.

Currents leading from the Spill to the Gulf Stream

I have been surprised by the path that the oil slick has taken, until I looked at the images on this website from the University of Miami:

The Gulf Stream originates as a loop current coming north from the Yucatan and turning south at a point roughly several hundred kilometers south of Pensacola, FL. It turns east at the north Coast of Cuba and then mostly runs north to Florida as the Gulf Stream, with a small stream slipping between the Bahamas and Cuba and running ESE.

The oil will stay mostly contained near the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama until it spreads into that loop current and begins to enter the Gulf Stream. If they can contain it within the gulf, they can likely save a great deal of marine life.

I will post a link to a forecast from an oceanographer as soon as I can find one.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Surveys of Cetaceans, Seabirds, and Turtles in the Spill Area

Minerals Management Service has publications on the seabirds and other marine life in the drilling areas. The link ( has a large report from 2000.

There are lots of dolphins and sperm whales living in the area. Huge numbers of Black Terns occur there in mid-summer but won't be there right now. Loggerhead and Leatherback sea turtles are fairly common.

Among seabirds, laughing gulls are the most common birds. No Black-Capped or Bermuda Petrels were detected, but Band-Rumped Storm Petrels and Audubon's Shearwaters were the most common members of their respective families that were documented.

The surveys were exactly in the area of ocean where the spill is centered. The animals feed along the continental shelf. Hopefully, the same survey ships are in the area and will be going out to document the damage and rescue any rare animals they can.

Dave Lee on the Oil Geyser

  1. We need a complete inventory of oil spill mortality for birds washing up on beaches and for birds collected on the water near the slicks. This inventory should include the species, sex and by the age of the bird. This information will help with future modeling of demographics for long-term recovery efforts.
  2. Clean up and care of the birds is costly in time and money, so we need people to identify rare species and move them to the front of the line in the rescue centers that are set up. Coastal species will be the ones most frequently encountered by people on the beach, and in most cases these are going to be (at this time of year) birds that are relatively common (Laughing Gulls, Double Crested Cormorants, etc.) We will never get a good sample of the mortality levels of the tropical pelagic species due to their distribution, currents and winds, but boats collecting oiled birds at sea and visits to seabirds colonies now would provide valuable data.
  3. There needs to be a plan as to what to do with the birds that do recover, as this spill is so vast that turning them loose will simply result in their loss. As Will stated, the real impact will best be measured on nesting grounds, with abandoned eggs and hatchlings, inventories of colonies over the next 5 years, etc. David Wingate found that oiled tropicbird eggs in nests in Bermuda had a low hatch rate, and even seemingly minor oiling on feathers of the parents resulted in the loss of the nest. The failures were apparently a combination of egg failure and adult mortality.
  4. Money for seabird conservation could be better spent on surveys and rehabilitation of rare species than spending hundreds of thousands trying to clean Laughing Gulls and similar species that will recover quickly, and on their own, from this disaster. I was disturbed by the oil spill/seabird workshops I attended because there was not any plan in place for priority species. In fact, the groups that run these programs are a business and their mission is to simply work up as many individuals as possible and then present a bill to the party responsible.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Oil Spill and Caribbean Seabirds

The ongoing oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico gravely threatens wildlife throughout the Gulf and leading into Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas if the slick is carried off on the Gulf Stream. The most recent reports indicate that 5000 barrels of orange crude oil per day are leaking from the well-head, which is about 1.5 km underwater.

There will be a minimum of resources available to help birds, and rare species should receive priority over common ones. Fortunately, most migratory waterbirds will have left the Gulf wintering area already. This leaves rare birds that breed in the area as the primary targets of recovery efforts.

Masked Booby populations in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico are extremely low (~4000 pairs) with the majority (3500 pairs) on the Campeche Banks, just north of the Yucatan Peninsula. While we know little about the at-sea movement patterns of Boobies and other seabirds in the West Indies, the slick area is 700 km north of the Campeche Banks, easily within foraging range of the Boobies actively nesting there. This spill could devastate the population.

The major populations of seabirds (and other marine life) in the Florida Cays, Northern Cuba, and the Cay Sal Bank of the Bahamas are directly threatened. The Cay Sal Bank has fantastic coral and fish populations and thousands of nesting pairs of rare seabirds including Roseate Terns and Audubon's Shearwaters. Populations in the Florida Keys and the north shore of Cuba are also globally significant, with several Important Bird Areas recognized.

There are scant data about areas in the path of the slick that are of high importance to seabird foraging. The plume is likely to track the continental shelf break to the tip of Florida. This area is likely to be used by pelagic birds such as Black-capped Petrels and other species with tiny remaining populations.

Even if dispersants are used successfully and the major oil slicks are broken up on the ocean, some of the oil will be taken into the food web and eventually end up within the seabirds and large fish. The spill is another blow to an already degraded environment.

My recommendations:

  1. Any Rescue efforts should focus on rare species first when overloaded with animals to treat.
  2. Survey teams should be sent to the major nesting areas to examine the nesting populations for unattended eggs, oiled adults, and sickened birds.
  3. The slick should be tracked by recovery boats to document birds that are affected and to help those that can be salvaged.
  4. Money for the recovery should be used for ongoing island restoration attempts to increase the breeding success of the populations that are affected.
  5. Research into the effects of dispersant and petrochemicals on the health of the birds should be funded by BP, Haliburton, and Transocean.
  6. Research into the economic disruption should be funded as well, including impacts in the Bahamas and Cuba.

Here is a list of 49 Seabirds that occur in the Gulf of Mexico (compiled by Dave Lee):

Common Loon
Bermuda Petrel - Unknown
Black-Capped Petrel - Unknown
Cory's Shearwater
Greater Shearwater
Audubon's Shearwater
Wilson's Storm Petrel
Band-rumped Storm Petrel
Red-billed Tropicbird
White-tailed Tropicbird - likely
Brown Pelican
Northern Gannet
Masked Booby
Brown Booby
Parasitic Jaeger
Long-tailed Jaeger
Pomerine Jaeger
Great Black-backed Gull
Glaucous Gull
Iceland Gull
Thayer's Gull (form of Iceland Gull)
Herring Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Laughing Gull
Common Blackheaded Gull
Common (Mew) Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Franklin's Gull
Bonaparte's Gull
Little Gull
Caspian Tern
Royal Tern
Roseate Tern
Common Tern
Arctic Tern
Sandwich Tern
Forster's Tern
Gull-billed Tern
Least Tern
Black Tern
Brown Noddy
Black Noddy
Bridled Tern
Sooty Tern
Black Skimmer
Red Phalarope