A majestic nesting spot

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- A juvenile brown pelican stretches his beak among a group of nestlings and adults Sunday, May 26, 2013.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- A juvenile brown pelican stretches his beak among a group of nestlings and adults Sunday, May 26, 2013.

Gulf birds scour vanishing land spits for rearing young

Photos of oil-covered brown pelicans being removed from a small island in Jefferson Parish became some of the most iconic images of the damage the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster brought to the coast of Louisiana.

Although Queen Bess Island was surrounded by largely ineffective oil protection boom, many birds had to be relocated after they got into the oil that was flowing into Barataria Bay on each tide.

Birds that were in the midst of nesting on this small rookery island were at risk.

Three years later, even as the research continues on what damage occurred along the coast and what could be lingering problems, the birds have shown their choice and are nesting in large numbers on Queen Bess Island.

Located northeast of Grand Isle, Queen Bess Island has long been recognized as an important bird habitat, particularly for nesting brown pelicans. Until 2009, the brown pelican in Louisiana was on the endangered list and the state and federal agencies had spent time and money in the early 1990s to restore the island particularly for the benefit of brown pelicans.

“Most colonial nesting birds, they want small islands without predators on them,” said Richard DeMay, senior scientist with the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program.

The islands’ distance from land and their small size means that it’s tough for predators to get to them. Even if a predator does get to the islands, they’re too small for the species to get established, unlike on the larger barrier islands closer to the Gulf of Mexico.

Although there are still a lot of these small islands with vegetation that still exist, they are also disappearing quickly, DeMay said.

“Deterioration of bird islands may force birds that typically nest on one island to seek refuge in an alternate location,” Bo Boehringer, press secretary for the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said in an emailed response to questions. “For example, due to loss of other suitable habitats, birds that return to islands that are no longer suitable for nesting are forced to find alternate locations to nest.”

No biologist familiar with the area was made available to The Advocate for an interview.

“By the time these birds arrive at the alternate location (perhaps Queen Bess) the ‘prime’ nesting areas are already inhabited by the birds that historically nest in those areas. This can force the latecomers to nest in ‘non-prime’ areas (on the ground and/or nearer the water versus in the mangroves),” Boehringer wrote.

There is interest among nonprofits, particularly those interested in birds, in restoring some of these small, interior islands. However, doing so presents numerous challenges, DeMay said.

These small island projects can be very expensive because they’re so remote and a lot of the cost of building these kinds of projects is related to the mobilizing and demobilizing of equipment. Just getting equipment to these island areas is difficult because of the shallow bays where they’re located, he said.

In addition, with limited money for coastal restoration, the emphasis is usually on getting the most for the money that is spent, DeMay said. These small islands don’t really fit into that mold.

However, if you look at it from the perspective of areas and species that were affected by oil from the Deepwater Horizon through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, also referred to as the NRDA process, it’s possible. DeMay explained that the NRDA process, which is ongoing at this point, is meant to identify damages from an oil spill and then work to address those damages.

“It should be what do these birds need along Louisiana’s coast and then you build that,” DeMay said.

One way to do it is to piggyback on a larger barrier island project, he said.

That is a possibility the state is considering, said Garret Graves, executive assistant to the governor for coastal activities and chairman of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. If there’s already work planned for a larger restoration project, the state wants to look for ways to possibly extend that to other work to get some savings in the cost of the project.

“There’s no question those islands that are very important rookeries were heavily oiled,” Graves said.

The state has a master plan for coastal restoration and protection that is being used as a guide for how money from the oil spill will be spent along the coast.

However, Graves said, there are instances where there will be projects paid for with oil spill money that weren’t included in the master plan based on what damage was done to the coast.

“There will be projects in NRDA that aren’t in the master plan,” Graves said. That’s already happened with some of the early restoration projects that have been approved, such as more than $15 million allocated to oyster clutch placement in Louisiana.

One problem is that the NRDA process isn’t settled, so the state’s hands are somewhat tied on what projects they can do at this point, Graves said.

As the NRDA process moves forward and more information is revealed about the nature of the damage the oil did to Louisiana, some projects might become higher or lower priorities, Graves said. Some of the islands will just take too much money to restore, he said.

“But, if that’s the only place you have that habitat, you have to bite the bullet,” Graves said, and spend the money.