TIERRA VERDE — Officials released 32 brown pelicans into the wild Wednesday at Fort DeSoto Park, completing their rescue and rehabilitation from effects of the massive oil spill fouling the Gulf of Mexico.
The birds were rehabilitated at the Fort Jackson Wildlife Center at Buras, La. From there, they were loaded onto a U.S. Coast Guard plane early Wednesday in New Orleans for a flight to the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Coast Guard Station, officials said.
The cages were transferred to vans for a short trip to southern Pinellas County, where the big birds were released at midday along one of the nation’s most celebrated beaches.
Some of the captives burst from their cages to immediately fly away into a nearly cloudless sky.
Others emerged cautiously, blinked in bright sunlight, and lazily paddled in circles in the water, as if they needed time to get their bearings.
“Every animal matters,” said Delia Schonwaeiler, 53, a tourist from Belgium who was watching the event on the beach with her three children. “I think it’s wonderful a few animals were able to escape the oil spill.”
Jenny Powers, a wildlife veterinarian for the National Park Service, said some birds had been more severely affected by oil than others, but added they all were “amazingly resilient.”
Fort DeSoto Park was chosen for their release for several reasons, including good weather, excellent habitat and protected beaches, Powers said.
More importantly, she told a crowd of photographers and reporters, the oil spill appears to be “staying away” from this area of Florida.
Originally, about 60 or 70 birds had been slated for release, but in early-morning checks, about half needed more care, and will remain at the wildlife center until they’re fully recovered, said Cassidy Lejeune, a biologist for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries.
The birds were rescued along the Louisiana coast during the past couple of weeks. Pelicans have been removed from the list of endangered birds, but are still listed as “a species of concern,” Lejeune said.
That means scientists are still monitoring the population, and the birds remain legally protected.
“We need to do what we can to ensure these birds get the optimum chance,” said park supervisor Jim Wilson. Fort DeSoto Park’s lush nesting areas, he noted, host 319 bird species, including migratory wildlife.
Wednesday’s release was the third in the Tampa Bay area of oiled birds flown in from Louisiana since the spill began in April; the other two took place at nearby Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge, at the mouth of Tampa Bay.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.