With its large bay area, beaches and salt marshes, Massachusetts is a primary nesting ground for many endangered coastal water birds, particularly the piping plover.
However, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico puts these birds at great risk. Even though the spilled oil remains in the Gulf, its deadly potential reaches wildlife across the country. In the coming months, many Massachusetts birds will migrate for the winter to the Gulf Coast, where oil has already begun to coat the shoreline.
Piping plovers, sparrow-sized birds spread across the coastal United States, are a star case for beachfront conservation efforts. Scott Hecker, a past director of Mass Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program and now CEO of a conservation non-profit called the Goldenrod Foundation, said there are only 3,000 pairs of these plovers in the world, putting them squarely on the federal endangered species list.
“In 1986, in Massachusetts, there were only 137 pairs. In 2009, there were 575,” Hecker said.
Though their population has grown, Hecker warned, it remains small and fragile.
“The piping plover is going to really have problems. It is the most threatened species of everything that could be on the list. It’s the most endangered shorebird in North America. The vast majority of its population is going to be in places where they could be affected by oil.”
The piping plovers left the Gulf of Mexico for Massachusetts and other Atlantic states just before the oil spill in April, but they soon will return with their new young. The plovers will not leave the Gulf until next April.
“We’re going to have oiled piping plovers pretty soon, starting in July, and it could be a serious problem for the entire wintering period,” Hecker said.
Plover species such as Wilson’s plover have spent much of the summer on the Gulf Coast and soon will migrate elsewhere, and oil has already seriously affected some of their habitat.
Hecker said that, for the birds to be affected, they do not need to be coated in oil like the pelicans seen on TV. In fact, even a dab of oil on a plover’s foot could prove fatal.
“Wherever there’s oil, the piping plovers will be walking around in it. They’ll get oil on their feet, they’ll transfer it onto their bodies, then onto the eggs and the young,” Hecker said.
Margo Zdravkovic, the director of Conservian, a nonprofit organization now managing National Audubon’s Coastal Bird Conservation program, said, “Birds preen their feathers all the time to keep them well aligned, clean and waterproof. Once the feathers get oiled, though, they get matted and stick together. The birds get wet, they can’t dry up and they are susceptible to exposure.”
As the plovers and other water birds preen their feathers, Zdravkovic said, they also can ingest some oil, which can be lethal.
Plovers also will ingest oil as they search for food along the Gulf coast.
“They eat polychete worms, other marine invertebrate and flies at the tide line, in tide pools and on seaweed on beaches,” Zdravkovic said. “If oil gets in these places, which have a lot of food in them, then there is no clean food for them and sometimes no food at all.”
There is little people can do to help oiled plovers, Zdravkovic said.
“Plovers can still fly if they get oil on their bellies, so you can’t catch them. Even if we could, we’ve learned from Exxon Valdez that the survival rate for washed birds is not good at all.”
No methods without harm
“The goal is to minimize the impact of the oil as it comes ashore,” Hecker said. “Many methods are being tried. There are dispersants, attempts to capture the oil, and the last defense is to put floating booms up to restrict the floating oil. But to do this, they’re driving their equipment right in the nesting grounds of all these shorebirds. They get environmental laws waived to kill these birds in order to protect their habitat. It’s a sad mess.”
It is also possible that these food sources will be contaminated with chemical dispersants that are used to break the oil slick into tiny globules, and which Exxon, its developer, has admitted to having “moderate toxicity on the early stages of life” on many of the plovers’ food sources.
These chemicals also have the “potential to bio-accumulate,” according to Exxon, building up inside predators’ bodies with the potential of serious side effects.
Even after BP has drilled its relief wells and stopped the spilling of oil into the Gulf, Hecker said, the danger to plovers and other birds from the oil will continue.
“Only a tiny fraction of the oil in the Gulf has gone ashore, and more and more of it will be coming ashore for a very long time. When hurricane season picks up, the direction of the water’s going to go from the well in all different directions, so a much wider range of impact is going to occur,” Hecker said.
Zdravkovic stressed that beach and marsh cleanup are of prime importance, but she hasn’t seen any great effort along the Gulf coast to protect the shorelines.
“People spent weeks just watching it come in. The effort to stop it just didn’t happen,” she said. “I don’t believe that the resources weren’t available.
“Stopping the oil is the most important thing right now. It needs to be done right away, because the longer it sits there, the more birds have the potential of becoming impacted.”
North Shore Sunday (Massachusetts)