On a Wing and a Prayer
The headline-making urgency of the louisiana oil spill may have passed, but for the region’s birds, every day is still a struggle to survive. The National Audubon Society’s Melanie Driscoll and her dedicated team are their best hope.
It’s 6:15 a.m. on a hazy day in late June and Melanie Driscoll is at the bow of a small speedboat heading down a channel that empties into Louisiana’s Barataria Bay. She is dressed head to toe in khaki and wears earrings and a necklace in the shape of birds. The well-being of those animals is her life’s work: At the age of 41, Melanie helps oversee efforts by the National Audubon Society, the venerable environmental nonprofit, to preserve vital habitats for hundreds of bird populations on the Gulf Coast. She is headed to one such area this morning.
The boat glides silently between wispy walls of marshland that vibrate and buzz with activity. Laughing gulls loop overhead, their song a hearty chuckle; a great egret takes flight, emerging from the human-height golden grass with grace and speed; a clapper rail adds to the din with its distinctive clacking call.
Despite the serene setting, there are numerous signs of the spill caused by the April 20 explosion on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Inky stains dot the stalks of marsh grasses, and a thick sludge covers the hulls of nearby boats bobbing in the water. Halfway down the channel, we pass a tugboat piled high with coils of orange and white boom—plastic and nylon tubing that is meant to contain the oil. (At press time, the oil leak had been capped.) There are restrictions on fishing that can change on a daily basis, so some local fishermen are being paid to lay boom in lieu of hauling shrimp and oysters.
The boat’s captain, Pete Young, worked as a fisherman for 18 years, but since the spill, he has made a living conducting charters for reporters, politicians, and researchers. With his beloved coastline ravaged and his livelihood all but obliterated, somehow Pete hasn’t lost his sense of humor. When an official from BP lent Pete a pen, Pete asked him, “So, is this going to leak in my pocket?”
Like Pete and countless others, Melanie has seen her life turned upside down by the spill: One week after the catastrophe began, she moved into a no-frills hotel room in Gretna, Louisiana, 1 ½ hours south of her Baton Rouge home. Months later, she still lives there. Constantly battling exhaustion, she labors 15 to 20 hours a day, six days a week, to assess the damage to the birds of the region and to come up with a game plan to protect them from future harm.
No stranger to disasters, Melanie began working as Audubon’s coordinator of Important Bird Areas in early 2006, a few months after Hurricane Katrina destroyed more than half the bird-nesting areas in the Chandeleur island chain and pummeled the nearby marshland. In the summer of 2008, she was promoted to her current post, director of bird conservation for Audubon’s Louisiana Coastal Initiative. Before that, Melanie, who holds a master’s in biology, worked as a research biologist at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, specializing in house finches.
Her love of birds goes way back. “I was the kid who would find a dead cardinal and bury it in a shoe box in my yard,” says Melanie, who grew up in Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay. “And then, in college, I did a paper on hummingbirds for an ecology class and got even more hooked. I couldn’t believe it: These tiny creatures could fly backwards, straight up and down like a helicopter, right in place, and across a large body of water. It seemed improbable. And magical.” From that point on, helping those animals have a safer, cleaner environment—and a better life—was Melanie’s calling. “I see myself as an advocate for the birds,” she says. “Since they cannot speak for themselves, I’m here to do it for them.”