By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Gulf-area biologists and researchers from Cornell University have discovered that birds on previously unaffected Raccoon Island have been newly oiled, apparently because of waves of crude driven in by winds from Hurricane Alex.

Brown Pelicans at Raccoon Island show contact with oil. (Photo: Gerrit Vyn, Cornell Lab of Ornithology).

The AP reported Wednesday that the oil appears to affect a population of 300 pelicans nesting on the island and hundreds of terns on Louisiana’s largest coastal bird colony, raising questions about whether the federal government’s tallies of affected birds are underestimating the number of oiled birds. The government counts only birds brought in for rehabilitation or found dead from oil exposure.

The damage also is an ominous portent for chicks that hatched on the island, but now face a murky future as oil continues to pollute their habitat.

Raccoon Island, a  rookery off the coast of Louisiana, had escaped earlier damage when the team from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology visited in mid June. Then, it found that the large water bird colony, home to some 10,000 birds, was oil free and it inhabitants in good health.

But when the team, led by biologist and multimedia producer Marc Dantzker, visited earlier this week (on July 11-12), it found oil present on rocks and all along the beaches, as had been reported by local biologists. Almost all of the young brown pelicans had some visible oil on them, about 30-40 percent had significant oiling and an estimated 10 percent were deemed “badly oiled,” according to a statement from the Cornell researchers.

Oiled boom off the coast of Raccoon Island, a narrow strip of land along Louisiana's coast (Photo: Gerrit Vyn, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

Higher waves from the hurricane and the full moon likely caused floating oil to breach the boom protecting the area, Dantzker said.

“The island has a single line of inshore boom on the bay side, and in some places this boom showed signs that oil splashed over the top and there was oil on shore behind these booms,” Dantzker said. “What Gulf-side boom there previously was has been destroyed and is washed up in piles, or deep into the island.”

Dantzker said the damage to Raccoon Island is the worst he’s seen since the BP oil spill began, and that many of the birds will die as a result of their contact with the oil.

An oiled pelican, brown in places where the plummage is normally white, on Raccoon Island. (Photo: Gerrit Vyn, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

Raccoon Island, part of the state’s barrier islands, was seriously damaged by Hurricane Andrew in the 1990s. But it has been restored, with the state planting vegetation and building up the shoreline.

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