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Dec 24, 2010 6:59 AM by Nichole Larkey

In Christmas tradition, Gulf Coast birds counted

GRAND ISLE, La. (AP) - As dawn breaks on the Gulf of Mexico,
Hans Holbrook and Chris Brantley stomp onto the beach in rubber
boots, telescopes and tripods slung over their shoulders, alert for
signs of birds.
Grand Isle's annual Christmas bird count has begun - early, as
This year the National Audubon Society's bird count on the Gulf
Coast is especially important: It comes eight months after the BP
oil spill set off panic in the hearts of ornithologists and bird
lovers across the nation. The counts will be used by scientists
tracking the health of the Gulf's bird populations.
Holbrook and Brantley are among 60,000 bird watchers across the
Western Hemisphere who count birds during the winter holidays and
submit checklists for the Audubon Society's Christmastime bird
tally. The society began doing the annual count 110 years ago. Bird
count records go back to 1949 for Grand Isle.
The two birders pitch their tripods in the sand and start
looking. They start early so they can do as much birding possible
while the birds are active.
"A black-bellied plover," Holbrook, a birder since age 8,
says, leaning into his telescope.
"I got a herring gull down here and there were some other
gulls, which could have been ring-billeds, I think," says
Brantley, the Grand Isle count's group leader.
"Yeah, I saw a few ring-billed gulls, a few herring gulls go
by, a Caspian tern, a Forster's tern; I saw three black skimmers
out there."
"I had a dozen brown pelicans go by."
Brantley, who has been counting birds on Grand Isle for 15
years, is upbeat about what he saw Wednesday. It's his first time
down here since the oil spill.
"It looks about the same to me," he says.
Louisiana is one of the nation's richest and most important bird
habitats and the oil spill jeopardized this national treasure.
The Audubon Society plans to study this winter's 65 bird counts
along the Gulf of Mexico for clues about the oil spill and its
effects on bird populations. Ten Gulf Coast bird count locations
were oiled, said Greg Butcher, the society's conservation director.
In the wooded back side of Grand Isle, surrounded by bird
sounds, another group of birders is scouting the bushes, tree tops
and underbrush.
"Louisiana is a place that is right in the middle of bird
migration," explains Phil Stouffer, a bird expert and professor at
Louisiana State University.
In a patch of live oaks and palmetto, his group finds an array
of chirping migrants staying for the winter.
"It would be really complicated for these birds to be directly
affected (by the spill)," Stouffer says. "They would have to be
eating something out of the marsh that was contaminated."
He quickly adds: "But I don't think we really know to what
extent birds are getting exposure at sub-lethal levels. I don't
think you should say we dodged a bullet just because you don't see
dead birds laying all over the place."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that about 3,000
birds were found visibly oiled and about 2,000 of those died during
the spill. Some 4,000 other birds not visibly oiled were found
dead. Still, the spill appears to have killed a lot fewer birds
than first feared.
But Stouffer says it's far too early to know whether birds,
especially marsh dwellers, are being harmed by the oil. Perhaps,
they will have a hard time breeding in the spring. Or they could
become more vulnerable to parasites and pathogens, he says.
"It's just the superficial look that we're getting with this
count, but it is useful," he said.
There's some excitement in the woods: They've just found a bird
spotted only once before on the island during a Christmas count.
"That's a Nashville warbler," birder Erik Johnson, an LSU bird
specialist, says excitedly.
"Yep. Bright yellow, gray head. White eye-ring," concurs Tommy
Harold, a birder by hobby and girl's college volleyball coach.
"Guess what? That's not the one I saw yesterday," chimes in
longtime birder Glenn Ousset.
"Yours wasn't so bright?"
"No. Mine was a female."
"Wow!" Johnson says.
So, there's a pair and that's a big deal.
"That's a bird that doesn't normally winter here, it doesn't
belong in the United States, except maybe Florida," Ousset
Brantley and Holbrook, meanwhile, have run into the ongoing
cleanup operations on Grand Isle's beach. Most of the beach is
fenced off and closed to the public because tar balls are still
washing in.
Brantley sets up his tripod outside the orange plastic fence
designating a no-trespassing zone. A group of oil spill workers
walks by looking for trash and oily debris and nod.
"I used to be able to walk all the way to the edge," Brantley
says. "Here the views are limited."
Holbrook joins him, and once again they are absorbed in the
world of birds.
During a pause at noon, the birders surveying the island gather
in a circle outside the town's main grocery store for a preliminary
assessment of what they've found.
Brantley looks over his checklist. What's missing? What's
"Gannet, merlin, sharp-shinned hawk we're missing, which we
usually get," he says. "We didn't have much down by the beach.
We're missing sedge wren. Did somebody get a common yellowthroat?"
"We did."
"We're missing some of the ducks, mallards, mottled ducks. But
we might be able to locate some of them in the wetlands areas where
the ducks hang out. No red knots yet."
Birder Joelle Finley scans her checklist. To her, the island
seemed to be lacking the usual flocks.
"The general impression was less gulls and pelicans than
normal. Usually they just stream by all day long. But it could be
weather conditions, it was so beautiful today."
With a smile, she adds: "The beach is clean." And then she
wonders aloud, "Are the tar balls all that bad?"
No one has a good answer.


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