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.”
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A Devastating Sight
The channel opens up into Barataria Bay, and a while later Queen Bess Island appears—a speck of lush emerald in what otherwise feels like an industrial wasteland of abandoned oil rigs and rusty drilling platforms. Nearing the island, Melanie points out the swirly, iridescent patches that skim the water, then gestures to the orange flecks staining everyone’s shirt. It’s residue in the ocean spray, but the birds seem oblivious to this lurking menace: Royal terns, laughing gulls, and tricolor herons flap, preen, and squawk as row upon row of brown pelicans, Louisiana’s state bird, arrive from the south carrying food for their young in their pouched beaks.
Since the spill, the brown pelican has become the poster bird for the disaster. “They’re the easiest to spot and catch,” says Melanie. “So they are the canaries in the coal mine.” And they are no strangers to the dangers of man-made environmental calamities: In the 1960s, after the use of the pesticide DDT decimated their numbers, they were an endangered species, and they continued to be one as recently as November 2009. (At this point, experts don’t know whether the oil spill will cause the pelicans to be listed as endangered again.)
But they’re not the only birds Melanie worries about. “Beach-nesting birds, such as Wilson’s plover; marsh birds, like mottled duck, seaside sparrow, and clapper rail; and even potentially wintering birds, like piping plover, are all at risk,” says Melanie. Not to mention the wading birds—reddish egrets, great blue herons, and roseate spoonbills—and migratory shorebirds; dozens of species in all.
Captain Pete slows the boat and pulls up to an orange boom that surrounds the small island. Rather than keeping the oil away from Queen Bess as intended, the boom has trapped the sludge against the shore, where the baby birds are nesting. Melanie and David Ringer, Audubon’s communications coordinator for the Mississippi River region, both pull out their binoculars and notepads. “The pelicans don’t look too bad,” says Melanie. “But I just counted 160 baby royal terns, and every single one is covered in oil.” David, a 27-year-old bird lover who first started volunteering for Audubon at age 16, confirms her count. “It’s sickening,” he says. Melanie remains composed and makes a note in her field book. She peers through her binoculars again and then announces, “Of the 300 adults, only 30 are lightly oiled.” That means they will be hard to catch; only heavily oiled birds are incapacitated enough to be captured easily. Baby birds, tragically, are so fragile that a rescue could imperil them more than the oil does. Melanie must constantly make judgment calls about which birds should be saved and which have a better chance of survival on their own. She suggests that the baby terns be rescued. Just then, David spots something floating ahead. He points his binoculars in its direction and says solemnly, “It’s a laughing gull. Heavily oiled.”
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Waiting for Help
As the boat slowly approaches, the gull makes a desperate attempt to fly. But the sticky brown substance coating its white belly and throat weighs down its wings. It can barely move and is at immediate risk of drowning. Melanie uses her cell phone to call a dispatcher at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF). The state agency handles such rescues, while two nonprofit organizations—Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research and the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC)—assist with bird rehabilitation. Melanie works in conjunction with both organizations, conducting scientific surveys on the effects of the spill on bird habitats and conferring on crisis response.
That response isn’t always perfect. The 10 minutes spent waiting for the LDWF boat to arrive are excruciating for everyone. (The terns, which are not in immediate danger, are a lower priority.) The gull paddles toward the island. Melanie explains that he’s trying to reach land so he doesn’t die in the water. He makes it to the boom but is too weak to get over it.
When the rescue boat arrives, a man in a hazmat suit and gloves scoops the gull up in a large net before gently placing him in a pet carrier; it’s fabric-lined to keep the bird protected from the elements. “Oil compromises a bird’s ability to thermoregulate,” says Melanie. “Their feathers act as insulation, so when they’re coated in oil, birds can freeze if left on open water. Or they can overheat if stranded on land.” Other worries: oil ingestion and starvation, since oil hampers a bird’s ability to fly and forage for food.
Once the bird is secure, the boat races back to the harbor, where a transport vehicle will take it to Fort Jackson, the bird-rehabilitation center temporarily located in Buras, Louisiana, that Melanie and David visited the day before. There, Melanie compares field notes with IBRRC executive director Jay Holcomb. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has just flown 35 clean and healthy pelicans in a chartered plane to Texas, where they were released, he tells her: a good story in a sea of sad ones.
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What Comes Next
Over the months, Melanie’s role has grown exponentially: She goes on weekly bird-counting trips (like this one) to various islands, writes environmental-impact reports, and keeps the national headquarters informed about the day-to-day happenings in the Gulf. She also launched a regional volunteer program for people seeking to help the birds—no small job. “Within weeks of the crisis, we were inundated with calls and e-mails from around the country,” says David. As of July, the Audubon database registered a stunning 30,000 volunteers. Among them was New Orleans–based Lexie Montgomery, 41, who left New York City five years ago, after assisting with the Humane Society of New York’s animal-rescue efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Lexie now works for Audubon alongside Melanie, helping to coordinate volunteers. Some function as liaisons in the transporting of oiled birds to facilities like Fort Jackson, while others take birds that are injured but not oiled to the animal hospital at Louisiana State University (LSU), in Baton Rouge.
As of late July, Fort Jackson had aided 1,008 birds, while LSU had cared for 52. “We had a brown pelican with a broken wing the other day,” says Lexie. “Our volunteer was happy to make a six-hour round trip to LSU to get it medical treatment.” Kelly Davis, a 25-year-old wedding videographer and volunteer, explains why: “Once you see an injured bird, you simply feel compelled to help.”
Melanie, however, worries that too many people think cleaning birds—a potentially hazardous and delicate task that requires specialized training—and other hands-on work with the wildlife are the only ways to lend a hand. “If bird populations get hit hard in Louisiana, they need a place to take refuge,” says Melanie. “For example, we have to preserve marshes and beaches in Texas and Florida that weren’t affected by the oil.”
To that end, Audubon has created programs with the goals of cleaning up bird-friendly areas in those states and restoring the Louisiana coastline (for more information, see How You Can Help). “Instead of focusing only on the damage done, we need people to look forward and protect the habitats around the entire country that are still thriving,” says Melanie.
This is a point Audubon has been making for more than a century. “Since 1905, we have been working to protect birds and the ecosystems they rely on,” says Melanie. “The oil spill is not the only problem—it’s one threat in an already broken system.” Louisiana is home to nearly half the nation’s wetlands—80 percent of which have been eroded, largely because of human activity, over the past 200 years, according to a U.S. Geological Survey. “This area was already in a state of crisis leading up to this event,” says Melanie. “The spill has just highlighted that for everyone to see.”
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A Moment of Reflection
Following the laughing-gull rescue, Melanie and the rest of the crew on Captain Pete’s boat continue to the islands in Cat Bay. Storm clouds are gathering on the sea, which looks eerily like liquid mercury. This is Melanie’s fourth trip to Cat Island, the largest of the cluster and the most vital. A lump of scraggly mangroves, it is covered with Pepto-Bismol pink spoonbills, snowy white egrets, great blue herons, and thousands of brown pelicans, ranging in size from hatchlings to fully grown adults.
Like Queen Bess, the island is ringed with worthless boom. In one area, several sections of it have come un-moored and are tangled up on mangrove roots. David grabs his binoculars to scan the shoreline. He gasps. “Every spoonbill fledgling is oiled,” he says. “Every single one.” The spoonbills, all neck and spindly legs, have tiny tufts of rusty brown for bodies. They’re supposed to be pale pink.
Melanie scans the cluster, then says aloud what everyone is feeling: “This is very painful.” The boat slowly circles the island as Melanie and David do their counts. “We are still in the thick of the disaster, and none of us can forecast what the oil spill means for these birds,” says Melanie, who expects to stay in the coastal area for the foreseeable future before eventually returning to her Baton Rouge office. “Emotionally, we haven’t hit a post-traumatic-stress phase yet, either. This is pure trauma.”
The ride back is fast and quiet, with everyone lost in contemplation. Finally, Melanie punctures the silence. “I try to be detached, which sounds awful, because birds are dying,” she says. “But I have to if I want to help them. They’re my number one priority.” Then she pauses as the boat slowly enters the marina. “The thing is,” she says, “if I start crying now, I won’t be able to stop. And then what use will I be to the birds?”
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How You Can Help
Here’s a list of organizations to which you can lend your time or support to protect the coastline and local animals as well as support residents of the Gulf Coast.
National Audubon Society Going forward, the National Audubon Society is focusing its attention on wildlife and costal rehabilitation. Its top priorities for the fall and winter are to make cleanup and bird rescue as safe and effective as possible. Visit Audubon.org to become a member.
St. Bernard Project Donations to the St. Bernard Project provide mental-health services to residents of the St. Bernard and Orleans parishes in Louisiana who have been directly affected by the oil spill.
The Gulf Relief Foundation This foundation raises funds to help local fishermen, the fishing community, and the regional seafood industry and to support wetlands and coastal environmental concerns. You can make a donation, purchase a T-shirt, or download the single “It Ain’t My Fault” (99 cents, iTunes). The song is performed by the Gulf Aid AllStars, featuring the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, with special guests Mos Def, Lenny Kravitz, and Trombone Shorty. All proceeds will be distributed by the GRF.
Mobile Bay National Estuary Program Along with the Community Foundation of South Alabama, the Mobile Bay, Alabama, National Estuary Program has established the Coastal Estuary Restoration Fund to provide money to help restore water quality, habitats, and human uses of the Mobile Bay.
Abita S.O.S. Pilsner Abita Beer has released a specialty beer in bottles labeled with pelicans, fish, and birds spelling out S.O.S.—or Save Our Shore. Seventy-five cents of each beer sold and 100 percent of net merchandise sales go directly to the recovery of the Gulf Coast as a result of the spill. S.O.S. is sold in 41 states.