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Gulf Oil Spill Reaches Important Bird Areas

Posted on 22. June, 2010.

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The massive Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has begun to reach some of the 25 recognised Important Bird Areas (IBAs) that line the US Gulf Coast from Louisiana to south Florida, according to the Audubon Society.

The sites provide essential habitats to hundreds of species including sandwich and royal terns, as well as brown pelicans, which have only recently been removed from the US Endangered Species list.

Audubon president Dr Frank Gill says: “Seabirds like the northern gannet and an array of marine life have already been hit and now, many more victims are now likely to succumb. We may never know the full extent of the damage to the creatures that spend their lives beneath the waves or suspended between sea and sky. Millions of birds migrate across the Gulf at this time of year, returning from their winter homes in South America.”

The Audubon Society is cleaning and rehabilitating oiled birds. The first two birds to be rehabilitated – a northern gannet and a brown pelican are to be released on Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s Atlantic coast. Gill notes that oiled birds may be the most visible indicator of how this disaster is affecting the ecosystems in the region.

George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy, says that other effects are not so easily seen.  “In addition to the potential catastrophic losses to shorebirds that we know to be at risk on their breeding grounds and in the wetlands around the Gulf, the oil spill poses a serious threat to seabirds,” he says.  “Many will likely die unseen far out in the Gulf.”

Fenwick also notes that it is “difficult to measure is the loss of future generations of birds when birds fail to lay eggs or when eggs fail to hatch. Many of the birds are incubating eggs right now, and we know that even small amounts of oil on the parent’s feathers will kill the young.” In addition, population numbers will be affected by the oil’s impact on the fisheries that sustain the seabirds.