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A Wing and a Prayer
The Gulf oil disaster is about more than pelicans.

So far most of the media and conservationists’ attention in the Gulf of Mexico has focused on resident populations of birds such as brown pelicans. But a whole new cast of characters will soon be winging its way south on a path to danger. This fall migratory species will return to their wintering and stopover grounds in open water and marshlands that have been heavily polluted by oil.

Common loons, for example, whose haunting calls define the North Woods, face peril more than 1,400 miles from their lake-country breeding grounds. At least half of the 15,000 loons from Minnesota and Wisconsin—the lion’s share in the Lower 48—will soon head to wintering grounds in the Gulf, where more than 100 million gallons of oil from the Deepwater Horizon blowout continue to spread. Like many scientists a long way from the spill, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Rich Baker worries that species he struggles to protect at home are threatened by a disaster far away. “The system we’re a part of is much larger than what we observe day to day.”

Shorebirds, waterfowl, and other migratory birds, which left their wintering areas this past spring before the catastrophe, will head back down the Central, Mississippi, and Atlantic flyways. These include black skimmers and several species of terns as well as Arctic nesters, such as ruddy turnstones and sanderlings. Some six million ducks and geese are also at risk. “Louisiana is the heart and soul of the Mississippi Flyway wintering grounds,” says Tom Moorman, director of conservation planning for Ducks Unlimited’s southern region. “There’s so much oil out in the Gulf, a storm tide could be pretty disastrous in terms of pushing it into places it would be impossible to get out. That’s the biggest risk to most of the ducks.”

DU will try to divert puddle ducks and marsh birds, such as sandpipers, yellowlegs, and dowitchers. With $2.5 million from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation—money BP committed from the sale of recovered oil—conservationists and farmers in southwest Louisiana and east Texas will flood up to 20,000 acres of rice fields to provide alternative feeding areas.

Unfortunately, freshwater habitat does nothing for diving ducks and loons flocking to brackish water and saltwater. Lesser scaup, for instance, gather in rafts, some a mile long, and dive for dwarf surf clams and other invertebrates. “You can imagine the mess we’d have if a slick went through a big raft of scaup,” says Moorman. Oiled ducks will die of hypothermia, or the slow failure of kidneys, liver, and reproductive systems.

Short of stopping the blowout and cleaning up the mess, little can be done to prevent the collision between oil and birds. “It’s pretty difficult, migration being what it is,” says Moorman. “You’re not talking them out of it.”

As a result, conservation and monitoring will have to make a huge contribution. Protecting the birds’ northern nesting grounds is more important than ever to help compensate for potential losses in the Gulf. It’s also essential to determine just how much damage is done to birds and their habitat, says Greg Butcher, Audubon’s director of bird conservation—but with a big caveat. “A lot of the birds getting oiled aren’t being found. We can’t determine the damage just by counting dead birds.” That’s why such long-standing efforts as Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count and Minnesota’s Loon Monitoring Program are so vital. Adds Butcher, “The best way to assess the impact is to compare bird populations before the spill and after the spill.”

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Slideshow: Deep in Oil
A look at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the array of species it threatens.