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Northern birds migrating to disaster?

June 23, 2010 at 07:35 AM

Minneapolis Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS - A time bomb is ticking for Minnesota’s loons and many other iconic birds that spend part of the year here before migrating south each fall.

As black crude continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, contaminating some of the continent’s richest wildlife habitat, officials fear an oily death could await untold numbers of the state’s beloved 12,000 loons and other commonly seen birds in Minnesota such as great blue herons, white pelicans, spotted sandpipers, egrets and ducks when they migrate south in a few months.

Even if the oil stops flowing soon - and that appears unlikely - vast contaminated areas likely will remain this fall, meaning birds that migrate to or through the Gulf could fly into a deathtrap.

“It’s a substantial threat,” said Carrol Henderson, head of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ non-game wildlife program. “Loons and lots of other species will be really vulnerable.”

An estimated 13 million ducks and 1.5 million geese winter along the Gulf Coast. Blue-winged teal and wood ducks will begin flying south from Minnesota as soon as August. Sandpipers start migrating next month. Loons depart in late October or November.

They are part of the flood of migratory birds that funnel along the Mississippi River to the Gulf Coast and beyond.

“This is a tragedy, not only for Gulf states, but the entire continent,” said Rich Baker, a DNR wildlife biologist.

Scientists say it’s impossible to predict how many birds might succumb to one of the nation’s biggest environmental disasters, what the impact will be to populations or how long the Gulf Coast might be fouled. One thing is apparent: The tragedy will take many months to unfold and likely will affect wildlife from Baudette to Baton Rouge.

“It’s like a slow-moving train wreck, and the brakes haven’t been applied,” said Doug Inkley, senior s cientist with the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, D.C. “This is a disaster in which we’re almost helpless to do anything.”

Said Henderson: “It’s not like anything we’ve ever seen before. You look at the effects of Hurricane Katrina - there was a lot of damage, but the ecosystem wasn’t ruined. This time it’s being drastically altered.”

And wildlife officials say they feel helpless.

“You can’t slow, stop or divert the migration,” Henderson said. “The birds are pretty much hard-wired to go where they want to go.”

The oil is double trouble for Minnesota’s loons - the state bird. After hatching here in spring, young birds return each fall, along with adults, to the Gulf or Atlantic coasts for the winter. Researchers estimate perhaps two-thirds go to the Gulf Coast, mostly east of Mississippi and along the Florida coast, where oil is beginning to show up. The rest winter on the Atlantic Coast, off the Carolinas.

The immature, non-breeding loons then stay along the coasts for at least two years before returning north, said Charles Walcott of Cornell University, who has conducted loon research in Wisconsin. Researchers believe the young birds normally in the Gulf may make a mini-migration to the Atlantic Coast - meaning few loons might now be near the growing oil slick.

That could explain why, of the 1,500 birds recovered dead or oiled so far, just one was a loon, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But come fall, those young loons likely return to the Gulf, along with adult and newly hatched birds now in Minnesota and Wisconsin, which has about 3,400 loons. And, even if the oil flow is stemmed this summer, officials expect vast oil slicks still will plague the Gulf this fall - and perhaps for years to come.

“We are bracing for what could be a catastrophe,” said Stacy Craig, LoonWatch Program coordinator in Wisconsin.

The experts say loons are more fragile than other birds, and those that encounter oil could be doomed - even those that are rescued and cleaned. In their favor, on the other hand, is that they winter over a broad area, including the Atlantic Coast.

Still, for every day that oil continues to flow, prospects increase that some Minnesota loons won’t return north next spring.

Wildlife populations are difficult to assess under the best of circumstances, and determining how the oil spill affects Minnesota’s loons and other birds could be problematic, officials say. Many birds that die will never be recovered. In the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989, about 35,000 birds were recovered, but an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 or more died.

But officials in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, where loons have been surveyed for years, believe they will be able to detect significant losses, if they occur. Ten Wisconsin loons will be fitted with transmitters this summer, which will allow rese archers to track exactly where they go - and whether they return. Another 200 loons have been banded as part of different project. And in Minnesota, the DNR uses volunteers to monitor loons on 600 lakes. That annual survey shows a steady population.

However, if significant numbers die in pools of oil, recovery of the loon population could be slow. Loons usually produce only one, sometimes two, chicks per season.

Beyond the immediate threat of the oil, scientists fear the crude could damage the Gulf Coast’s fragile wetlands - the largest in the lower 48 states - as well as fish and other food and habitat. That, too, could have long-term consequences for wildlife, including birds that Minnesotans enjoy watching every spring, summer and fall.

The harsh lesson is that the massive oil spill in the distant Gulf of Mexico will impact Minnesotans in many ways, from the seafood they eat to the birds they watch at their cabins.

“It’s not just something happening 1,500 miles away,” said the DNR’s Baker. “It could affect us and have a profound impact on our state bird. It’s a reminder that we’re all part of this bigger system.”

Your CommentsComments :: Terms :: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Whats really sad, is all you seem to hear from the media is the economic toll on the country and nothing about what matters more-our wildlife!

Posted by Wags on 06/23 at 08:16 AM

I wonder if they are considering shortening or even closing duck season altogether?  That would seem a logical conclusion. If not this year then next year once the impact of this is known.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06/23 at 10:59 AM

I’m not a duck hunter, but I’ve been wondering the last few weeks… BP’s making payments to businesses affected by the spill.  What about the duck/goose hunting industry?  It will most likely take a big financial hit that will financially impact numerous states and not just the ones along the Gulf.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06/23 at 11:42 AM

Perhaps the only silver lining is the possibility that, for a moment, people stop to consider the deeper lessons to be learned from this whole mess.

1. The economy is directly connected to the

2. Human activities can wreak significant, far-reaching and long-term damage to the environment.

3. The true and actual economic losses can never be fully accounted for because the value of lost opportunities cannot be reasonably appraised.

Now, if one oil well can cause this much damage to something as large as the Gulf of Mexico, isn’t it possible that human activity is affecting the Earth’s atmosphere?

There are larger lessons to be learned from this one small disaster.

We need to get real serious, real fast about the bigger and perhaps, the biggest mess we humans will ever create.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06/25 at 11:47 AM

1.The economy is directly connected to the

Correct, I heard the local strippers were going to file for lost compensation.

2.Human activities can wreak significant, far-reaching and long-term damage to the environment.

Environmental extremist activities can wreak significant, far-reaching and long-        term damage to the environment.
There fixed it for you.

3.The true and actual economic losses can never be fully accounted for because the value of lost opportunities cannot be reasonably appraised.

Oh I don’t know about that I’m sure there is a lot of people that have a figure in mind some legit some not.

Then were back to the global warming debate.

Ya know Spoon, do you think we should all just drink kool-aid and get it over with before we just totally trash the planet?

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06/25 at 03:24 PM

Time to Leave…do you really believe the nonsense you’re putting out there?

You should have taken Lincoln’s advice…

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06/26 at 04:30 PM

Here’s an informative exercise for Time’s Expired and all the other “apologists” out there…

Look around you.  Try to find just one thing that was acquired without some cost to the environment..

Then get back to us…

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06/26 at 04:39 PM

Sticks & stones Spoon, sticks & stones.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06/27 at 11:45 AM

Time…Do you see anything you’ve acquired that did not come at some cost to the environment?

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06/27 at 04:01 PM

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