Millions of birds winter on the Gulf of Mexico coast. Now volunteers are counting the animals to help scientists determine the oil spill's effects on resident populations as well as on the migratory populations.
© 2010 National Geographic; partially funded by NSF; field producing and videography by Fritz Faerber
THE SIGHT OF OIL GUSHING INTO THE GULF OF MEXICO MAY HAVE LEFT SOME PEOPLE FEELING HELPLESS TO PROTECT THE ENVIRONMENT, BUT THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE SAW THE SPILL AS A CALL TO ACTION. VOLUNTEERS CAME FORWARD TO HELP WITH BEACH CLEANUP AND WILDLIFE RESCUES AND MANY ARE STILL PITCHING IN.
A VAST AMOUNT OF DATA IS VITAL TO ASSESS THE SPILL’S EFFECTS ON BIRDS AND OTHER MARINE AND COASTAL LIFE. THAT’S WHERE THE NATIONAL AUDUBON SOCIETY IS HELPING OUT.
MILLIONS OF BIRDS FLY DOWN THE MISSIPPI RIVER FLYWAY TO SPEND THE WINTER ON THE GULF COAST AND SCIENTISTS NEED TO TRACK ANY CHANGES IN NUMBERS AND HEALTH OF THE MIGRANTS AS WELL AS THOSE LIVING YEAR ROUND ON THE COAST.
SOUNDBITE: DAVID YARNOLD, NATIONAL AUDUBON SOCIETY PRESIDENT:
“It’s an unprecedented effort. And this year there are going to be thousands of volunteers monitoring birds, counting, looking at their health as they come through.”
BIRDERS VOLUNTEERING IN AUDUBON’S CITIZEN SCIENCE PROGRAM JOINED THE EXPERTS EARLY IN THE SPILL TO CONDUCT A “COASTAL BIRD SURVEY”. AN ADDITIONAL PROGRAM WAS RECENTLY STARTED AND PARTICIPANTS FROM BOTH ARE STILL OUT IDENTIFYING AND COUNTING BIRDS.
THIS GROUP IN MISSISSIPPI COVERED A BIT MORE THAN A MILE OF UNDEVELOPED COASTLINE, SPOTTING HUNDREDS OF BIRDS. SOME PARTICIPANTS ARE NEW TO BIRDING.
SOUNDBITE: Renee Hill, Volunteer since June
“As a science teacher I know the importance of collecting data. And I was really interested in the fact that they would be collecting data over a long period of time.”
HILL JOINED THE GROUP IN JUNE AND WORKS WITH THE OTHER BIRDERS TO COUNT AND IDENTIFY THE BIRDS AS ACCURATELY AS POSSIBLE.
SOUNDBITE: Charley Delmas, National Audubon Society Bird Monitor
“This time of year, we’re getting a lot of migrants. We’re getting a good fall migration. So we actually are seeing the number of birds we normally see at this time of year.”
DELMAS AND THE OTHER LONGTIME BIRDERS HELP THE NEW VOLUNTEERS IDENTIFY SPECIES.
THIS BEACH APPARENTLY SAW LITTLE OIL AND SO FAR THE BIRDS HERE SEEM HEALTHY. BUT, LONGTERM MONITORING BY THIS GROUP AND OTHERS THROUGHOUT THE REGION CAN GIVE DEEPER INSIGHT INTO POPULATION HEALTH. ASK DELMAS IF HE IS A SCIENTIST AND HE WON’T MAKE ANY CLAIM TO THE TITLE.
“No, I’m actually a birder, I’ve been birding not a long time. I started in ’85 but some people start when they’re 4 years old and been birding all their lives.”
HAVING BIRDERS ALONG AT ALL LEVELS OF EXPERIENCE MEANS THERE ARE EYES LOOKING IN ALL DIRECTIONS.
“When I start a field trip I say it’s the eyes. If you’ve got several birders, good birders, they can’t see everything. So if you get a good mob and they’re seeing a lot of different things and brings it to other people’s attention, I think it brings some accuracy.”
AND ON THIS EARLY FALL DAY, THE GROUP IS REWARDED WITH THEIR FIRST SIGHTING OF MIGRATING PELICANS – SCORES OF THEM. THIS DAY’S COUNT, ALONG WITH THOSE FROM GROUPS ALL ACROSS THE GULF REGION, WILL GO INTO A DATABASE AT EBIRD.ORG. IT’S A JOINT PROJECT OF THE CORNELL LAB OF ORNITHOLOGY AND AUDUBON.
THE NEW DATA WILL HOPEFULLY HELP SCIENTISTS DETERMINE THE OIL’S LONG-TERM EFFECTS ON THE BIRDS.