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For bird rescuers in gulf, the toughest part is realizing many can't be saved

By DeNeen Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 6, 2010; C01

GRAND ISLE, LA. -- The oil is crawling now through the marshes, as if it knows where it is going. Creeping ominously, eating through paint on boats, staining sea grass black.

Michael Seymour is on a bird rescue boat, circling the islands of Barataria Bay.

"This is the land of the brown pelican," says Seymour, an ornithologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. He raises his binoculars and spots one sitting in oily water near Bird Island II. Crude covers the bird's head and back. "That may be a bird we can send someone in to get," Seymour says. But there is the trace of a question in his voice.

Another boat approaches. It is full of volunteers who call themselves Defenders of the Coast. One man shouts with urgency over the water to Seymour: "We saw a couple of oiled birds over there that didn't look like they could fly." The man looks worried.

"Why don't you take me to them," Seymour hollers back.

The Defenders' boat pivots. Seymour's follows. Then both stop. Seymour raises his binoculars again. Another pelican sits in oil. The white cap on the bird's head has turned amber. The bird is oiled, but is it oiled enough?

This is the bird dance in this hot bayou, two months after the start of one of the worst oil spills in history. The question has become: How much oil is too much? Should one try to catch an oiled bird and risk damaging nests or sending chicks scattering into more oil?

Oil is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico unceasingly despite the nation's most sophisticated technology working to stop it. People watched and read the news, felt queasy, tried not to think about it. Tried to just go on with life. But then the catastrophe moved toward the shore and they could not escape the images of birds covered in oil, like one by Associated Press photographer Charlie Riedel, which hit a collective raw nerve.

They posted online the image of the bird flat on its back, wings stuck in thick oil, feet kicking, futilely trying to free itself. People wept at their computers and sent each other messages. Did you see that photo of the bird? He looked like he was covered in chocolate, didn't he?

Even those who don't care much for animals took notice. These were the same people who get annoyed by pigeon droppings and creatures trying to coexist with people in cities and suburbs -- bothered by deer in the garden and raccoons moving around the attic like little men on their knees.

The suffering of other animals was haunting, too -- trapped turtles, crabs drowning in crude, dead dolphins. But the birds have been so visibly numerous, sitting immobile in oily marshes trying to clean themselves, sitting on eggs covered in oil, diving for fish in a sea coated in orange crude -- acting as if everything in the gulf is as it was before the spill began. We watch them try to keep going, just as we do, to live as if everything is normal. Only we know it's not.

Risking panic

The oiled bird Seymour is scouting spreads its wings. Seymour can see that it is still able to fly. That poses another dilemma: Do they try to chase it, which could stress it and disturb the colony of nesting birds?

More than 500 fish and wildlife workers from Louisiana and the federal government have been deployed to rescue wildlife. Volunteers from nonprofits -- Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research and the International Bird Rescue Research Center -- are involved. As of late last week, 600 birds had been rescued.

Biologists devised a delicate protocol for rescue, deciding that the health of the larger bird colony would override the health of individual birds. If rescuers find an oiled bird that is not mobile on the periphery of a colony, and if they are able to catch the bird without much disturbance to the nesting colonies, then they will rescue it.

"But if the bird is at the edge and runs into the colony," Seymour says, "we can't go in the colonies to catch a bird" because that could lead to other problems. "If you step on any nesting colony, the birds immediately panic and leave their nests. What you have just done is put those chicks and eggs at risk of temperature extremes. You have increased the chance of those chicks in the eggs being killed by stress. Or increased the chance of neighboring birds attacking eggs or chicks to decrease competition."

Seymour uses his cellphone to call another rescue boat and report the coordinates of the oiled bird. "We will send someone out to look . . . but not at this point." The bird, he says, "is oiled but not enough to prevent it from moving, from flying, from feeding its young."

This isn't easy for him, leaving an oiled bird in a marsh. He has loved birds ever since he can remember. His mother teases him that it's because there were birds on the wallpaper in the hospital where he was born. "To steal a line from the president, 'I go to sleep thinking about this and I wake up thinking about this,' " he says.

On the Defenders' boat, Megan Lenore, 27, winces. "They should catch all oiled birds they can," she says, pulling back her red hair, drenched with sweat. "I get that they don't want to stress the birds, but . . . he's out there cooking in this oil. Will it not distress them more?

"It hurt when they said he wasn't oiled enough. Would you leave a child on the street and say, 'Oh, he's not quite hungry enough'?"

'They cannot speak'

The enemy on these waters moves. Red-orange blotches of crude drift across the marshes. The birds keep sitting there, nesting, as the oil nears.

"They cannot speak," says volunteer Darlene Eschete. "If man or oil is going to encroach on their habitat, we should have something in place so the animals would not suffer because of man's greed."

A wildlife photographer, Eschete had been to Grand Isle two days before the spill to photograph migratory birds. Later, when she heard the news of the oil washing ashore, "I knew those birds were in trouble. The gulls and sandpipers nest right on the beach. Oil was coming up right where they were nesting."

Eschete jumped in her car the next day to drive an hour and 30 minutes from her home in Bourg to Grand Isle. "By the time I got there, the whole area where they nest . . . was gone." Workers had scraped the beaches clean of oil. The birds who survived the oil and the cleaning had moved to another part of the island.

"I saw a lot of royal tern babies in the oil. Pelicans were bringing babies to the water's edge to drink out of that toxic water."

When Craig Morse, 44, arrived at Grand Isle, he wandered on the beach alone, into a hazardous-materials area where volunteers are forbidden. That is where he saw hermit crabs scurrying.

"The high tide came in and left a deep, black line of oil on the rocks," Morse says. "As the tide went down, the oil bled down the rocks. It looked like a murder scene. You could see the hermit crabs trying to find refuge outside of the water, away from the oil."

Summer Burkes, 30, a writer from New Orleans, is sitting alone on the beach, hunched in the shade of a red dumpster. Burkes drove down from her house in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans because she found herself worrying about how the spill would affect the animals' ability to reproduce.

"I thought, 'Here it comes, the second trumpet of the seal when the ocean turns black, like in Revelation.' . . . Maybe it's my Southern Baptist upbringing. The only way I can comfort myself is by believing every great tragedy begets a great awakening."

Some distance away, on a fishing boat full of volunteers near Grand Terre Island, John Shurtz dips his hand into the water. It comes out coated in heavy oil. When he rubs the oil, it curls into lines of residue like those price stickers you try to scrape off new glassware. But thicker. He wonders about the things underneath the surface. A tiny shrimp swimming in thin oil near the boat seems to be struggling, moving vertically.

Returning to the scene

Down Highway 1, inside Sarah's Diner, commercial fisherman Melvin Douglas Shaw keeps talking about the oiled birds, like a man traumatized. That is what people here call them: the Oiled Birds.

Shaw was hired by a contractor to use his boat to carry rescued birds to the bird rehab program. Shaw transports birds to Port Sulphur on the west bank of the Mississippi. From there, they are sent to the Fort Jackson Bird Rehabilitation Center in Buras, where they are washed with Dawn dishwashing liquid, rinsed, then taken to a wildlife refuge in Texas or Florida. The birds are set free with the hope that they will not return to Grand Isle.

"I took a cat seven miles from my house," Shaw says. "I came back home and that cat was at my house. . . . You know the birds are going to come right back to the gulf, right back into all this oil."

Shaw keeps ferrying the birds as if he were traveling through Hades, slicing through oily water. "My brother called me and told me to be careful," he says. "My mama called me and told me don't get in the oil. My eyes were burning and I got headaches."

He remembers one bird in particular. "I swear it was trying to talk to me," he says. "It was smacking its beak. . . . I couldn't open the cage and wipe its mouth. I couldn't do nothing. It got to the point I was taking it personally. Those birds can't knock at the door and say, 'Please help me.' "

Turning to prayer

Farther down Highway 1, a memorial service for the animals is beginning. On the beach, people line up for the "Blessing of the Animals." A sand barrier divides the crowd from the ocean, erected by BP to keep people from crossing into a contaminated zone.

Under a blue tent, Jeff Dorson, executive director of the Humane Society of Louisiana, preaches: "Fifty-five days ago, oil started seeping into the gulf. We watched the marsh get soaked in oil. For those who love animals, this hurts. . . . Maybe we can magically stop the flow of oil through the power of prayer." He passes out mustard seeds, to represent faith.

Eschete is there. The photographer picks up a stray feather soaked in oil and points to two pelicans in the distance. "They may not be here a year from today," she says. "There may not be a single bird left on this island."

The gulf laps against the oily beach. The humans walk away to safer ground.

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