A decade after Gulf oil disaster, threats to birds mount

Gulf oil
An oiled Roseate Spoonbill after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in 2010. Photo by Mike Parr/American Bird Conservancy

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that tragically killed 11 workers and injured 17. The spill also leaked an estimated 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, leading to a major economic and ecological disaster.

As of spring 2020, conservation work conducted along the Texas Coast by American Bird Conservancy and its partners Houston Audubon Society, Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, and Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program shows that while the threat of future oil spills remains, beach-nesting birds are even more threatened by severe weather events and human disturbance than by oil.

Since the 2010 spill, five tropical storms and one hurricane have impacted the Texas coastline, not to mention many other strong storms that caused flooding in nesting habitats. The 2015 and 2017 breeding seasons were particularly wet seasons in that two tropical storms and other frequent rain events occurred during the peak of the breeding season. “Severe weather events are becoming more frequent and pose a real threat to coastal breeding birds, since many place their nests directly on the ground,” says Kacy Ray, manager of American Bird Conservancy’s Gulf Coastal Program.

Workers clean oil off a Tricolored Heron after the 2010 spill. Photo by Mike Parr/American Bird Conservancy

Beach-nesting birds also face threats from human disturbance, including on-beach vehicles, helicopter tours and banner planes, and off-leash dogs. In Texas, the Open Beaches Act allows for unrestricted access to public beaches, which includes beach driving. This presents a challenge when balancing the protection of breeding habitat and ensuring the public has access to these coastal resources.

“Vehicle tires and off-leash dogs often result in mortality for adult birds and their young,” says Kristen Vale, ABC’s Texas Coastal Program coordinator. “During busy weekends and holidays, our staff, partners, and volunteers work with the public to re-direct them away from sensitive nesting areas and to educate them about how they can become stewards for the birds and the beaches.”

Ways to help the birds during breeding season (generally from March through August each year) include keeping dogs on leashes, avoiding seasonally posted areas above the high tide line, and backing away from birds that are vocalizing and dive-bombing intruders.

Helicopters and planes flying over nesting habitat can cause birds to flush from nests, leaving eggs and chicks vulnerable to the hot sun and predators. ABC’s Gulf Coastal Program has worked with local operators to modify their flight plans to avoid flying over sensitive breeding areas.

Up to 800,000 birds may have perished

Although birds have faced other threats since the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the spill itself certainly had an impact. In addition to at-sea impacts to birds caused by floating oil, the Deepwater Horizon spill also polluted approximately 1,300 miles of Gulf coastline, including marshes and beaches used extensively by breeding birds that were just beginning to nest as the oil hit.

Further compounding the problems for birds, beach clean-up operations often ignored the fact that many Gulf beaches were active nesting sites for colonies of Least Terns and Black Skimmers, as well as Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers, and other beach-nesting birds. In many cases, clean-up crews and heavy machinery rolled through nesting areas, destroying eggs and chicks. The Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustees estimated that up to 102,399 bird mortalities (adults and the potential young birds lost) were associated with the spill, impacting 100 species including many species of gulls, wading birds, and shorebirds, as well as Brown Pelicans. In actuality, the mortality was likely much higher. Many dead birds were not found because they may have sunk or been eaten by other animals or fish, been buried under sediment or sand, or washed into inaccessible areas. Other research has suggested that between 600,000 and 800,000 birds may have died in the spill.

The disaster provoked an unprecedented clean-up response and resulted in a fine of $20.8 billion for BP — the operator of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig — the largest corporate settlement in U.S. history. In response to the disaster, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, International Bird Rescue, Gulf states, and other agencies also mounted one of the largest efforts to redress a conservation and ecological disaster in human history, providing funding and support to groups working along the Gulf Coast to restore wildlife populations.

Today, it appears that most bird populations are well into the recovery phase from the spill. But birds continue to face an uncertain future in an area with significant resource competition between people and wildlife, including crowded beaches, stronger and more frequent storm events, and oil and other coastal developments. 

Study: Even small amounts of oil made birds near Deepwater Horizon sick

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American Bird Conservancy

American Bird Conservancy

American Bird Conservancy is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization whose mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. It contributes the “Eye on Conservation” column in each issue of BirdWatching.

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