In Christmas tradition, Gulf Coast birds counted CAIN BURDEAU,Associated Press

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 26, 2010

As dawn breaks on the Gulf of Mexico, Hans Holbrook and Chris Brantley stomp onto the beach in rubber boots, telescopes and tripods slung over their shoulders, alert for signs of birds.

Grand Isle’s annual Christmas bird count has begun — early, as always.

This year the National Audubon Society’s bird count on the Gulf Coast is especially important: It comes eight months after the BP oil spill set off panic in the hearts of ornithologists and bird lovers across the nation. The counts will be used by scientists tracking the health of the Gulf’s bird populations.

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Holbrook and Brantley are among 60,000 bird watchers across the Western Hemisphere who count birds during the winter holidays and submit checklists for the Audubon Society’s Christmastime bird tally. The society began doing the annual count 110 years ago. Bird count records go back to 1949 for Grand Isle.

The two birders pitch their tripods in the sand and start looking. They start early so they can do as much birding possible while the birds are active.

“A black-bellied plover,” Holbrook, a birder since age 8, says, leaning into his telescope.

“I got a herring gull down here and there were some other gulls, which could have been ring-billeds, I think,” says Brantley, the Grand Isle count’s group leader. “Yeah, I saw a few ring-billed gulls, a few herring gulls go by, a Caspian tern, a Forster’s tern; I saw three black skimmers out there.”

“I had a dozen brown pelicans go by.”

Brantley, who has been counting birds on Grand Isle for 15 years, is upbeat about what he saw Wednesday. It’s his first time down here since the oil spill.

“It looks about the same to me,” he says.

Louisiana is one of the nation’s richest and most important bird habitats and the oil spill jeopardized this national treasure.

The Audubon Society plans to study this winter’s 65 bird counts along the Gulf of Mexico for clues about the oil spill and its effects on bird populations. Ten Gulf Coast bird count locations were oiled, said Greg Butcher, the society’s conservation director.

In the wooded back side of Grand Isle, surrounded by bird sounds, another group of birders is scouting the bushes, tree tops and underbrush.

“Louisiana is a place that is right in the middle of bird migration,” explains Phil Stouffer, a bird expert and professor at Louisiana State University.

In a patch of live oaks and palmetto, his group finds an array of chirping migrants staying for the winter.

“It would be really complicated for these birds to be directly affected (by the spill),” Stouffer says. “They would have to be eating something out of the marsh that was contaminated.”

He quickly adds: “But I don’t think we really know to what extent birds are getting exposure at sub-lethal levels. I don’t think you should say we dodged a bullet just because you don’t see dead birds laying all over the place.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that about 3,000 birds were found visibly oiled and about 2,000 of those died during the spill. Some 4,000 other birds not visibly oiled were found dead. Still, the spill appears to have killed a lot fewer birds than first feared.

But Stouffer says it’s far too early to know whether birds, especially marsh dwellers, are being harmed by the oil. Perhaps, they will have a hard time breeding in the spring. Or they could become more vulnerable to parasites and pathogens, he says.

“It’s just the superficial look that we’re getting with this count, but it is useful,” he said.

There’s some excitement in the woods: They’ve just found a bird spotted only once before on the island during a Christmas count.

“That’s a Nashville warbler,” birder Erik Johnson, an LSU bird specialist, says excitedly.

“Yep. Bright yellow, gray head. White eye-ring,” concurs Tommy Harold, a birder by hobby and girl’s college volleyball coach.

“Guess what? That’s not the one I saw yesterday,” chimes in longtime birder Glenn Ousset.

“Yours wasn’t so bright?”

“No. Mine was a female.”

“Wow!” Johnson says.

So, there’s a pair and that’s a big deal. “That’s a bird that doesn’t normally winter here, it doesn’t belong in the United States, except maybe Florida,” Ousset explains.

Brantley and Holbrook, meanwhile, have run into the ongoing cleanup operations on Grand Isle’s beach. Most of the beach is fenced off and closed to the public because tar balls are still washing in.

Brantley sets up his tripod outside the orange plastic fence designating a no-trespassing zone. A group of oil spill workers walks by looking for trash and oily debris and nod.

“I used to be able to walk all the way to the edge,” Brantley says. “Here the views are limited.”

Holbrook joins him, and once again they are absorbed in the world of birds.

During a pause at noon, the birders surveying the island gather in a circle outside the town’s main grocery store for a preliminary assessment of what they’ve found.

Brantley looks over his checklist. What’s missing? What’s unusual?

“Gannet, merlin, sharp-shinned hawk we’re missing, which we usually get,” he says. “We didn’t have much down by the beach. We’re missing sedge wren. Did somebody get a common yellowthroat?”

“We did.”

“We’re missing some of the ducks, mallards, mottled ducks. But we might be able to locate some of them in the wetlands areas where the ducks hang out. No red knots yet.”

Birder Joelle Finley scans her checklist. To her, the island seemed to be lacking the usual flocks.

“The general impression was less gulls and pelicans than normal. Usually they just stream by all day long. But it could be weather conditions, it was so beautiful today.”

With a smile, she adds: “The beach is clean.” And then she wonders aloud, “Are the tar balls all that bad?”

No one has a good answer.


For more information about the National Audubon Society’s Christmas bird count go to:

Information about birds and the Gulf oil spill can be found at: