The long reach of the gulf oil spill – our migrating birds

Loon with chick
Loon with chick

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The news is dominated by the on-going gulf oil disaster. What does it mean for our northern Minnesota ecology?  The answer lies with our migrating birds -- song birds, waterfowl and even our state’s symbol. WTIPs Jay Andersen talks with a local naturalist about the critical mix of crude oil and feathers.
 
 
Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. She lives here in Cook County and joins us periodically to talk about phenology or what’s going on in the woods right now. Welcome, Chel.
 
Anderson: Hello, Jay.
 
Well, Chel, the huge disaster in the gulf of Mexico. Thousands of barrels of oil continue to spew into the gulf after the Louisiana coast and it’s spreading east. The gulf is a long way from Cook County, but it’s migrating bird country. So, how’s this going to affect us?
 
Anderson: Oh, Jay, you’re right. This is a difficult thing to even talk about, there’s so many emotions involved, ranging from fury to grief, knowing what’s going on to these cherished places of people and other living things in that landscape. And, you’re right, birds are something if we didn’t already realize it are our wake-up call to the fact that we are connected to these places. This is not someplace else, this is really about us and the place we cherish, too. So, the morning birdsong chorus is extra poignant right now, because many, many of our singing birds will be going to the Gulf, some to migrate through and use various staging areas to refuel on their way to parts further distant and to rest and they need to bulk up when they are there, and they’re going to be foraging through all different kinds of habitats to refuel and then other birds are going to actually be living there over the winter. This is their winter residence. We’re talking about birds ranging from our warblers and thrushes and many songbirds to wading birds and shore birds, the birds we’ve been talking about this spring, the bittern, the snipe, the spotted sandpiper. The list is really too long to go into.
 
There’s been some discussion about loons. What’s the special deal with loons?
 
Anderson: Well, loons definitely are another bird that will be impacted. Any loon that leaves here in the late summer, fall, many of those Minnesota birds go to the Gulf and they are sea birds when they aren’t living here. So, they live in the sea, they feed in the sea, and so they are going to be on the front lines of potential impacts, both direct in terms of getting oiled up just like the birds that we’re seeing on TV and all the news reports that are down there right now, and feeding on other organisms that have become contaminated because they’re living in the same thing.
 
They’re a diver, they’re eating fish.
 
Anderson: They’re a diver, they’re eating fish, they’re eating, yeah, lots of sea life is being impacted that our birds would ultimately be using to try to feed on, whether they’re loons or other species. So, and if you think about many of the birds that will be migrating from here this fall will be brand-new birds. They’re going to these places without any past experience of the place, much less this very destructive catastrophe that we have wrought in the Gulf.
 
So, these are the ones that are being born right now.
 
Anderson: Right. Just this past week, I had the pleasure of being out on a local lake and seeing a little loon lit, brand new, you know, just maybe four inches long, riding around on its parent’s back. You know, just one of those sites that we all look forward to seeing and enjoying, but to think that that bird, if it’s successful in terms of getting through the summer and growing to adequate size and ability, it’s going to take off and go, and it could be going right to the Gulf.
 
Does this also affect ducks and things like that? Is this a part of their migratory path?
 
Anderson: Very major part. Much of our waterfowl species from common birds that nest right here, mallards and blackducks, buffleheads, goldeneyes, a couple different species of mergansers, teal, you know, there’s just, again, the list is too long to repeat here of all the waterfowl that use the Gulf as, and both the Gulf itself and also the marsh habitats and the estuaries of the Gulf as their winter residences. Whether you eat fish or you eat vegetation, this can impact your diet.
 
Now, what about the songbirds? Do they tend to habitat those marshy coastal areas or are they further in, and if they’re further in, will there be some kind of local migration that will push them out of their areas, or how do they share that territory?
 
Anderson: If they are winter residents, they’ll have a particular habitat that they regularly use, and whether or not that habitat is directly impacted will depend on what the habitat is and the hurricane season. The hurricane season could move oil into habitats that it wouldn’t otherwise get to. They also may find, as you’re suggesting, that winter resident birds, birds from the local area are occupying habitats that they don’t normally occupy, because of changes to their regular habitat. So, there’s a whole range of direct impacts that our migrant birds can experience as well as indirect consequences of this. Birds are a huge part of all of our native ecosystem’s individual habitats here. They play a big role in terms of controlling insect populations. So, they’re a major source of accumulating biomass over the course of the summer that then larger birds, birds of prey, can utilize to feed themselves. So, they’re an extremely directly important to some interactions, but they’re also a major part of the food web here, so, in both directions, you know, higher up on the feeding pyramid and lower down. Having diminished numbers of these birds isn’t just an aesthetic things, it’s a big ecosystem problem.
 
Finally, is there anything we can do about it?
 
Anderson: Well, speaking for myself, I think it’s just the most recent reason to do whatever I can to limit my consumption of oil. I feel like I need to take personal responsibility in any way I can to reduce my own consumption.
 
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand this critical issue.
 
Anderson: You’re welcome.
 


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