Thursday, June 3, 2010

Effects of the Gulf Coast oil spill on Midwestern birding?

I live 700 miles due north of the Louisiana coast, as the crow flies. That's 700 miles away from the BP oil spill disaster that is fouling the Louisiana coastline. Seven hundred miles seems a long way away from the five-mile birding route I walk each morning. The scenes of birds coated with oil from the spill are truly disheartening. But these scenes are 700 miles away, and the birds I see on my morning walks are as beautiful as ever.

But this distant environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico will have an impact on my future birding activities. Many of the birds I see now on my morning jaunts rely on the Gulf coast and its associated marshes during migration. What will await them when they head south this fall?

While most of the bird-related news stories about the BP disaster focus on the here-and-now of oil-soaked birds on beaches, some reports are now beginning to take a more long range view. How will the spill impact birds that winter along the Gulf, or use the Gulf coast to refuel before taking the long flight over water to their winter destinations in Central and South America?

I was both touched and distressed by Sally Jo Sorenson's May 31 post in Minnesota's Bluestem Prairie blog(see: After citing several sources that discuss the possible impacts of the oil spill on migratory birds, Sally Jo concludes by saying "It's rare for me to look into a research subject and find that I can look no more into the truths that inquiry discloses. I'm going to do some birding now."

I was haunted by Sally Jo's post as I walked this morning. That gorgeous Scarlet Tanager back in the woods? Winters in northwestern South America. The Bobolinks that have nested in my neighborhood for the first time in memory? They winter in Argentina. Does the Green Heron by the pond spend its winters in a Gulf Coast marsh? Do some of the Great Blue Herons that fly overhead daily winter on Carribean shores?

And what of the birds that thrill us during migration? The thousands of ducks and other waterfowl that grace our local lakes in the spring and fall? Ducks Unlimited is very concerned about the impacts of the oil spill on Gulf Coast marshes, which have wintered more than 13 million birds in some years (see: The eastern Sandhill Crane population that thrills us as they fly over our area each spring and fall? They winter in Florida.

Obviously, some species will be hit harder than others, especially birds that winter along the Gulf Coast and its numerous marshes (e.g., Pelicans, and marsh birds like Soras, Rails, etc.). Or shorebirds that rely on Gulf Coast beaches for either winter territory or refueling stops during migration. It remains to be seen what might happen to passerines that migrate over the Gulf. They may be hit less hard than some of these other species, but there still could be negative impacts.

As I go birding over the next several months, this will always be lurking in the back of my mind. Summer birding hasn't changed. Fall migration will proceed normally, at least around here, hundreds of miles away from the fouled beaches and marshes. But what lies in store when the birds are slated to head back north in the spring? Will spring migration be "business as usual", or will we notice some gaps in our records?

Like Sally Jo Sorenson, I think I will throw on my binoculars, head out the door, and go birding in the here-and-now. Maybe the dark thoughts rattling around in my head will give me a greater appreciation of the beauty that is here today...


  1. It's things like this that make good record-keeping a necessity. We can only determine how the spill affected the avifauna if we have a good idea of what it was like beforehand.

  2. Nice post, Bernie. Katrina knocked our ruby-throated hummers back so much we're STILL far below our normal summer population.

  3. Very interesting and thoughtful post Bernie. I've been following the tragedy closely over here in the UK. BP are a disgrace.