Shorebirds can't escape oil on the Gulf

U.S. – Imagine a labyrinth of marshy islands, accessible only by boat. Add a dose of choppy seas and surprise thunderstorms. Those are the conditions in which Margo Zdravkovic and her team from the Coastal Bird Conservation Program are searching for the Wilson's Plover, an eight-inch long bird.

"We'll swing out to where it's safe to pass those breakers and hopefully find what we're looking for," Zdravkovic says.

From a small barge boat, Zdravkovic is scanning the salt marsh where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf. She's searching for big stretches of sand with sparse vegetation. That's what beach-nesting birds need.

"They want to be able to see 360 all around them for predators. They don't like being backed up by tall veg," Zdravkovic says.

Five years ago, Zdravkovic, a conservation biologist, led the first comprehensive survey of beach-nesting birds in the Gulf. On this follow-up survey, planned long before the spill, she's managed to stay mostly ahead of the oil. (The survey is funded by the Barataria Terrabonne National Estuary Program.) But today in an area called Pass A Loutre, the first place oil made land fall, it has caught up with her. A clump of marsh grass is black with oil.

We pass by an oil-prevention barrier, Steve Liptay, part of the bird conservation team, spots a Brown Pelican, in trouble.

Zdravkovic calls the location in to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

"This one is by itself," Zdravkovic says. "It probably can't fly. You may be able to capture it. It's holding its wings out. It looks pretty badly oiled."

Wildlife biologists will try to rescue this bird, but they already have five pelicans on their list today.

After hours on the boat, Zdravkovic finds the beach habitat she's been searching for. The group pulls on waders, jumps in and walks towards the marsh.

Field researcher Joshua Soileau spots three Wilson's Plovers. Brownish-gray on top, white underneath, and a thick black bill. In the U.S., the Wilson's Plover is a species of high concern. And three quarters of the U.S. population breeds right here in the Gulf. That worries Zdravkovic.

"The chance for these areas they nest in to become impacted are high," Zdravkovic says. "So they can become even more imperiled."

It's steaming hot here in the back marsh. Out on the Gulf, oil rigs line the horizon. But the oil hasn't reached here yet.

While a Common Nighthawk squawks above us, we gather around the simple Wilson's plover nest: just a scoop in the sand cradling three speckled eggs.

The team counts 14 breeding pairs here. But at the next island bad news is in the air.

A waxy layer of oil is coating the sand. Blue crabs sit in oil, dying. Soileau spots a male Wilson's Plover. But you can't tell it's feathers are white.

Further down the beach, two small tents flutter in the wind. A pile of shovels lies in the sand. The clean up crews are gone for the day

Although these researchers can't save the oiled birds they plan to come back and survey here again. Their data will help the federal government figure out how much BP should pay for damaging natural resources.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Northeast environmental coverage is part of NPR's Local News Initiative.