Few creatures become so iconic to a state as the Brown Pelican is to Louisiana. In fact, few single images, save the Fleur-de-Lis, the graphically stylized lily or iris, illustrates this state in the minds of locals and visitors. So when the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster struck and the real threat of the escaping crude inundating the Gulf Coast within a week or two, the net-like coast of Louisiana was seen as bull’s eye of the target zone. And staring out from the center of that target – the gawky cute, waddling Brown Pelican.
That icon covered in thick reddish-brown oil was the image no one wanted to see – everyone feared seeing – especially BP. Almost immediately a rescue command center was established south of New Orleans at Fort Jackson, LA (over time moved to Hammond) and despite the many stumbles in the process saved birds, cleaned and alive, have been put back into a safe site in the wild at Rabbit Island, West Cove, LA. These images are from there.
For the Louisiana State Bird the timing of the spill could not have been more problematic. The low sandy coastal islands of the Gulf are tenuous places to nest and raise a chick in the best of times. On a few of these outposts mangrove and brackish water grasses have taken root, but with the normal annual surge of tropical storms and occasional hurricane blast one imagines what you, and pelicans, see today will be gone tomorrow.
One such place, Raccoon Island at the southern edge of Terrebonne and Timbalier Bays, I visited last Friday with Melanie Driscoll of Louisiana Audubon and a crew from Louisiana Public Broadcasting, to assess the state of the important rookery islands for ourselves.
What we found was healthy bird populations, even a few pairs of non-fledged chicks waddling their throat pouches and begging frantically at every approaching adult. They have another week of growing before joining the rest on the island’s east end beach. Reports had it there were “thousands” of dead birds. We did see decaying carcasses of skimmers, and terns and one pelican, all with oil soiled wing feathers still outlining their skeletons, but ‘thousands’ no. Now the question – were birds removed? Was there a “clean up” of the island? Hard to say at this point. We did find a couple of large oil tar patches and before leaving the island Melanie did the dirty work of drenching into the beach sand 12-15 inches. The digging resulted in oil. Only after an inch or so the sands were tar black and clung together like thick cookie dough. After a foot the hole began to fill with a pool of water swirling on its surface in a kaleidoscope of colors – the sheen of oil.