Fledging from the disaster

juvenile Black Skimmer after release

Juvenile Black Skimmer oiled in the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster flounders in the water after being released. After being rescued it was cleaned and spent weeks in the wildlife rehabilitation center at Hammond, Louisiana before returning to the wild near Cameron, Louisiana. Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures.

Oiled birds.  You can rescue them, soap them, scrub them, rinse them and with luck set them free, but that doesn’t mean they will always say thanks by taking flight.

Aside from chiseling its way from egg entrapment, fledging, the art of spreading wings and soaring beyond earthly ties, is one of a bird’s most trying moments in life.  That first leap of faith is huge, and doesn’t always go as planned.  For a couple dozen Brown Pelicans, Laughing Gulls, a Yellow-crowned Night Heron and one bewildered looking Black Skimmer, today was a second chance, that day of reckoning part deux.  After a near disastrous baptismal by crude oil each was getting one more lease on life, on the wetland oasis of Rabbit Island in West Cove, Louisiana.

This was the end of a magical week of dawn voyages to the island for me (see pelican photo story for pictures) – I only hung on until Friday because my “ears” to all things happening in Louisiana connected to the oil disaster, Lexie Montgomery, had found out a pelican release was on for the end of the week.  Since Brown Pelicans are the poster child for the BP disaster images of a pelican release were important to my story.  Releases are referred to as “pelican releases” despite the fact that many more birds are cleaned and rehabbed back into the wild than the plucky pouched pellies.  In fact, Laughing Gulls likely out number all other oiled avians – on this “pelican release” there would be twice as many gulls set free as all other birds combined.  Unfortunately Gulls are the starlings of the Gulf Coast and don’t solicit the “oh, ah” response that the poster pellies do.  And for the others, who outside birding types has heard of a Yellow-crowned Night Heron? (despite it being a very cool bird – having been called, ” the most exquisite of all North American wading birds.”)  But people, via the media, are a fickled nature loving bunch.  Nature has to have some heart twisting charm, or a baby Huey duck-like look, or we just can’t get enthusiastically behind their cause.  Pelicans got the look in spades.

released Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Dr. Jim LaCour of the Louisiana Dept of Wildlife & Fisheries, with biologist Will Selman, releases Yellow-crowned Night Heron from crate. It was victim of oiling in the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster April 20, 2010. Heron was rescued, cleaned and rehabilitated before release on Rabbit Island, West Cove (IBA), Louisiana. Photo Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures

This morning’s list of birds brushing death aside included eight Brown Pelicans and they took center stage.  In sharp contrast to yesterday’s quiet boat trip for four, survey of previously released banned birds and some additional flight photo work, the predawn gathering on the boat dock in Cameron was like a caucus of the BP make-shift contract workers union.  I totaled 29 of us in all and when I mentioned the craziness of the number to Will Selman, biologist from the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife & Fisheries, he said, “this is nothing,” with a smile, “the first releases we much crazier.” By that he meant media.  TV news crews, both local and national, were hot on the trail of every wildlife-oiled story a couple months ago.  Now, the media circus has moved on, mosques and koran burnings to cover this week.  They have the attention span of trout.  And on that count I was blessing the occasional twinkling stars that flickered between swelling cumulus clouds in the faintly lit sky.

pelicans at sunrise

A chevron of Brown Pelicans flies south down the Calcasieu Channel to the Gulf of Mexico. Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures

The Gulf Coast sky was shining on this event and introduced the day in the most spectacular fashion.  Clearly the most beautiful sunrise and clouds I had seen in the past few weeks.  Motoring our flotilla of five boats up the Calcasieu Channel we were greeted by chevrons of Brown Pelicans, many bearing pink and red bands from their release here weeks earlier, heading to the Gulf for the day.  That was a spirit-lifting sight, it made all the hard work and ridiculous amount of money spent per bird seem well invested.  In the east the clouds shifted and the sunrise show entered its second act, a warm honey amber light spilled across the Gulf Coast.

As we looped around the north side of the island the tiny beach where 6-10 pelicans generally share the shore was vacant, it was as if the other birds knew new arrivals needed their space and left the morning for them to adjust on their own.  Void of other media and through the generosity of the wildlife staff who I had shared the past days working, I was allowed to escort the avian detainees to Rabbit Island and position myself on the island for photos not possible from anchor on one of the barge boats off shore.  The oiled wildlife rehabilitation program is coming to a close, fortunately there just aren’t anymore birds coming in from rescue, so opportunities like this morning are soon over; I was delighted to not be jostling with the “media.”  Like in most of the clean up activities the heavy presence of people and equipment, the show of commitment, that was mustered in May, June and July was now costing substantially more than it returned; this is the last release of this scale.

released Brown Pelicans

Biologist Will Selman releasing rehabilitated previously oiled Brown Pelicans on Rabbit Island, West Cove, Louisiana. Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures

The pelicans were the first to go – from their crates the first pair shot without hesitation, like they had been told any dallying would have them going straight back to the rehab center.  Even with motordrive on high I got little from the event, “a great test run,” I spouted out loud, Will, one of the biologists opening the first crates, just laughed.  The second pair of crated birds proved more fruitful – I was ready – and resulted in the above image.

released Black Skimmer

Fledging from both the oil disaster and its internment at the wildlife rehabilitation center this juvenile Black Skimmer stretches new wings and sorts out the crucial first flight of freedom - biologist Carrie Salyers does the release honors. Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures

Few things surrounding disasters like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil mess give hope like watching a bird fly free.  That flight symbolizes something about our generosity and kindness as a species, when we try.  Sadly, the fact that we don’t try harder in every aspect of our lives is the reason we have to make periodic herculean efforts like the insanely costly rehabilitation of a handful of wildlife (I’ll save that waste-of-money story for a future blog.)  Now, as I sit in my hotel room half a day away from Rabbit Island I’m smiling at the thought of a couple dozen birds rediscovering what it means to be wild and fledging from the disaster – including the little Black Skimmer who finally got life and wings focused in the right direction.

My thanks to all the folks at Rockefeller Refuge headquarters of the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife & Fisheries for their patience and tolerance of my getting the images to tell the story.

This entry was posted in Louisiana stories, Oiled Wildlife, Pelicans and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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