More than three weeks after BP capped its gushing oil well, skimming operations have all but stopped and federal scientists say just a quarter of the oil remains in the Gulf of Mexico.
But wildlife officials are rounding up more oiled birds than ever as fledgling birds get stuck in the residual goo and rescuers make initial visits to rookeries they had avoided disturbing during nesting season.
Before BP plugged the well with a temporary cap on July 15, an average of 37 oiled birds were being collected dead or alive each day. Since then, the figure has nearly doubled to 71 per day, according to a Times-Picayune review of daily wildlife rescue reports.
The figures for sea turtles have climbed even higher, with more oiled turtles recovered in the past 10 days than during the spill’s first three months.
While the increase in turtles remains a mystery, wildlife officials say there are several factors at play in the seemingly counterintuitive surge in the number of oiled birds recovered since the leak was stopped.
For starters, it took longer for the oil to reach nesting colonies in coastal marshes, creating a lag in the spill’s effect on sea birds, said Kyla Hastie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
She said rescuers also had steered clear of some rookeries until recently.
“We’re just now getting into some of the really sensitive areas,” Hastie said. “If we had done so earlier, we could have done more harm than good.”
Young birds getting caught
Fledgling birds that are just now leaving nesting colonies are particularly vulnerable to landing in oiled areas, said Charlie Hebert, a deputy wildlife branch director for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We’re seeing more juvenile birds getting oiled as they’re trying out their wings,” he said.
While skimming operations have nearly stopped because the remaining oil is too dispersed, bird rescue efforts have held steady, with about 45 teams heading out each day, Hebert said.
Rescuers are in a race against the clock as the percentage of oiled birds recovered alive has dropped from 56 percent before the well was capped to 41 percent now.
As of Friday, a total of 1,794 oiled birds had been recovered alive, as well as 1,642 that had died, with 73 percent of the birds coming from Louisiana.
Hebert said the spill has primarily affected pelicans, herons, egrets, terns and laughing gulls, but information on how many of each species have been recovered was unavailable.
Wildlife officials had rehabilitated and released 657 birds through Thursday.
A total of 428 oiled sea turtles have been recovered, with 222 coming in just the past 10 days.
“The high number of turtles is a bit of a mystery to us,” Hebert said. “We’re finding oiled turtles feeding on seaweed drift lines, but there’s no apparent oil in the drift lines or on the open water.”
The prognosis for sea turtles has been much better than for birds, as just 17 visibly oiled turtles have died.
Exxon Valdez more deadly to wildlife
The wildlife death toll from the Gulf oil spill has been much lower than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, which killed an estimated 100,000 to 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and up to 22 killer whales.
Hebert said the Exxon Valdez spill caused such carnage because it occurred close to shore in cold waters that quickly killed oiled birds who lost their waterproofing.
By contrast, birds oiled in the Gulf’s warm waters can survive for two or three weeks before they become debilitated enough to be captured by rescuers, Hebert said.
Because the Gulf region sits beneath one of the world’s major migratory flyways, a federal conservation agency is paying some farmers and ranchers to flood their fields to provide oil-free feeding and resting areas for millions of birds passing through the region.
The $20 million program will involve up to 150,000 acres of former wetland areas and low-lying land, according to the Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Meanwhile, Hebert said nesting islands affected by the spill are “looking a lot better now.”
“Most of the oil has been removed,” he said. “From a wildlife point of view, I’ve been very happy with the cleanup efforts.”
Hebert said the recent uptick in the number of oiled birds being recovered is not expected to continue for a prolonged period.
“The oil has stopped flowing and there are no places where big numbers of birds could be hidden from us,” he said. “We’ve already been everywhere.”