Yesterday we travelled by boat to Breton Island, one of several barrier islands in the Breton National Wildlife Refuge. Oil booms surround this tiny island, in hopes of keeping the looming oil spill at bay. And for good reason.
Breton Island provides habitat for an incredible diversity of birds, including migratory songbirds, seabirds, nesting wading birds, shorebirds and waterfowl. At least 23 species are regularly found here and 13 of those species, such as brown pelicans, laughing gulls, and terns, regularly nest on the various islands in the refuge. It is home to the largest tern colony in North America. Many of these species, including the pelicans and terns, are beginning or are at the height of their nesting seasons.
You can see many of these birds in this footage we captured on May 5th.
For the Eastern brown pelican, which was just removed from the endangered species list last year, breeding season has just begun and many pairs are already incubating eggs. Large wading birds found in the refuge including the roseate spoonbill, ibis, heron and egret. The refuge is an important area for magnificent frigatebirds, and marsh birds such as the mottled duck, clapper rail, black rail and seaside sparrow.
In the past week, surveys at Breton Island NWR found more than 34,000 birds. The total included 2,000 pairs of brown pelicans, 5,000 pairs of royal terns, 5,000 pairs of Caspian terns, 5,000 pairs of feeding, loafing and nesting gulls and other shore birds including the sandwich tern, least tern, laughing gull, and black skimmer. The area is designated as a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy.
Beach-nesting species, include the American oystercatcher, Wilson’s plover, and snowy plover, may be especially at risk from contaminated habitat and prey. These species are at risk not only in the short-term from direct oil exposure that can lead to hypothermia, burns and inability to forage, but also from chronic effects of contamination that can affect reproduction. For instance, more than 10 years after the Exxon Valdez spill, researchers have found that black oystercatchers that foraged in contaminated areas had smaller eggs and reduced breeding levels compared to other populations.
Finally, the spill may also impact bird species that we don’t consider marine or coastal at all. The next several weeks mark the peak in migration for many migratory songbirds that overwinter in the tropics of South America and fly back over the Gulf of Mexico to their summer habitat in North America. This year, as they arrive in North America exhausted from their journey, they may have to cross through plumes of smoke from the burning oil slick, and may find resting areas contaminated.
NRDC attorney Jon Devine posted a blog post with more information about the potential impact of the spill on birds.
This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.