Canada's Birds Feel the Impact of BP Oil Spill
The BP oil spill began during spring migration season for many birds that breed in Canada during the summer, and with oil continuing to spill into the Gulf, the coming fall migration seems poised to be a dangerous time for Canada's migratory birds. Here are some of the species most likely to be in harm's way:
Piping Plover (Endangered)
In Canada, this small, sandy-coloured shorebird breeds on open sandy beaches of lakeshores, river sandbars, ocean coasts, and alkali flats in scattered locations on the Atlantic coast, on the Great Lakes and in the prairies. Its plumage would seem to blend right in, if not for the bright orange legs. They often walk or run along the sand, rather than flying, to take advantage of this camouflage. Piping Plovers feed on marine worms or small crustaceans by a series of rapid steps and pecks on the sand.
Piping Plovers spend their winters mainly on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, Mexico and Cuba, particularly on beaches, mudflats, sandflats, bays, lagoons and inlets. Their spring migration peaks during mid-April; while many individuals would have already left the Gulf when the leak at Deepwater Horizon began, some may have been caught in the spill.
Although the fall migration peaks in August and September, plovers can begin to leave their breeding grounds as early as June or July if nest conditions have been unfavourable. These birds are heading straight to a region where their habitat and food sources may have been compromised and are still at risk from oil contamination.
Roseate Tern (Endangered)
The Roseate Tern is similar in appearance to several other species of tern, with its black cap and long forked tail, but has a distinctive chi-vik or ki-rik call. This species feeds by plunge-diving, dropping into the water from heights of up to 12 metres to catch small fish.
These terns pass through the Gulf of Mexico, heading north in April to breeding sites in Nova Scotia and coastal New England, and south in September to wintering grounds in South America. If oil remains on the water when their fall migration begins, the birds are at risk of becoming oiled and ingesting oil as they try to feed. Even if the surface effects of the spill have been cleaned up, they may still be at risk from eating contaminated fish.
Yellow Rail (Special Concern)
Small, with buff, yellow and black plumage that mimics the tall grasses it hides in, the Yellow Rail breeds in isolated pockets across Canada's boreal forest. This marshbird, the second-smallest rail in North America, is rarely seen and quite secretive, but depends on the coastal wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico during the winter.
If oil begins to accumulate in the marshes along the Gulf coast, recovery would be difficult or impossible since so little is known about this species.
The Sanderling is one of the most widespread shorebirds in the world. This small, plump sandpiper can often be seen running along the coast in flocks. Sanderlings feed by probing the sand along the tideline with their bills, chasing after receding waves to pick up stranded crustaceans and molluscs.
An Arctic breeder, this species is common all along North American coasts during migration. Their spring migration, from late April through May, fell right at the start of the oil spill in the Gulf. Waves that formerly deposited food on the beach to fuel the rest of their journey instead deposited sticky slicks of oil that stained the birds a rusty orange.
For those individuals that did make it to their breeding habitat in the Arctic, the fall migration back south takes place through July and August for adults and lasts through August and September for juveniles. As the spill continues to spread away from its epicentre in the Gulf, more of the American coast that these birds will use as stop-overs on their journey to wintering habitats in Central and South America is becoming toxic.
With its striking plumage – pure white with black wingtips and bold lines around blue eyes – it is hard to miss the Northern Gannet. This remarkable species spends most of its life at sea and nests in a few large colonies in the North Atlantic. It feeds by plunge-diving up to depths of 22 metres in pursuit of fish.
Most adults had already made their migration north, away from the Gulf, in April before the oil spill began. However, juvenile gannets remain in those dangerous waters and were among the first avian victims of the spill. The fall migration back to the Gulf occurs in October. There is no way of knowing whether the effects of the spill will be cleaned up by then, but the damage to the species' future has already been done.
All About Birds, Northern Gannet. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Gannet/id
All About Birds, Yellow Rail. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Yellow_Rail/id
Audubon Magazine Blog, “Audubon Oil Spill Response Team Update #6: Oiled shorebirds”, May 23, 2010. http://magblog.audubon.org/audubon-oil-spill-response-team-update-6-oiled-shorebirds
BirdLife Community, “Birds at risk from the Gulf Oil Spill” April 29, 2010. http://www.birdlife.org/community/2010/04/birds-at-risk-from-the-gulf-oil-spill/
Species at Risk Public Registry, Yellow Rail. http://www.sararegistry.gc.ca/species/speciesDetails_e.cfm?sid=574
The Birds of North America Online, Piping Plover. http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/002/articles/introduction
The Birds of North America Online, Sanderling. http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/653/articles/introduction
The Birds of North America Online, Roseate Tern. http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/370/articles/introduction
The Globe and Mail, “Will the gannets in the oil-drenched Gulf return?” Jun 18, 2010. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/travel/will-the-gannets-in-the-oil-drenched-gulf-return/article1609184/