Special Reports

Birds released after rescue from oil spill

EGMONT KEY NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE —Six birds rescued from the effects of oil off the coast of Louisiana were released back into the wild Sunday at the mouth of Tampa Bay.

Officials of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Coast Guard had ferried the birds from Fort Jackson Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at Buras, La., where they were cleaned of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, to pristine Egmont Key.

The birds included four brown pelicans, a northern gannet and a laughing gull, said Dr. Sharon Taylor, who supervised the release. She is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service veterinarian and a contamination expert.

“Getting birds back out is the key to their long-term survival,” she said as she reloaded empty cages into a boat.

Oil on a bird’s coat interferes with its waterproofing, and the bird gets cold, or becomes dehydrated or sunburned, she said. Fumes from oil or ingestion during feeding can be toxic.

The lucky six now enjoying the clean, aquamarine waters off Egmont Key were picked up last week in the Gulf, taken to the Louisiana rescue center, washed and given time to recover, Taylor said.

Sunday, they were flown to Clearwater, driven to Fort DeSoto County Park and loaded onto a boat.

As the cage doors opened, all but one bird took a few hesitant steps out into the glistening water, and then flapped away into the blue. The laughing gull was the ham of the bunch, loitering before television cameras before finally flying into the breeze.

Asked why Egmont Key was chosen for the birds’ release, Taylor replied, “We consider it an ideal refuge.”

Egmont Key is a Gulf Coast environment similar to the one in which the birds previously thrived, but it has the advantage of being away from the trajectory of the oil spill.

Other wildlife have not been so lucky: Taylor carried a list showing a death toll of 478 birds, 224 turtles and 25 dolphins, which had been collected as of Saturday. Her list also included 66 live birds, and 16 live sea turtles that had been picked up.

“It’s a tragic situation,” Taylor said. “No one wanted it to happen. It’s very hard to look at an oiled bird or to look at dead birds. And we really do try to stay focused on what we can do to help, and help the live ones and prepare in case there’s going to be more.”

A fire and explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig and well off the Louisiana coast last month created the massive oil spill now blackening Gulf waters. Scientists last week declared the spill to be the worst in U.S. history, far worse than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska.

Sara Kennedy, reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.