Oil’s effects on shorebirds “could have been worse”
September 18 – Long before sea freighters a city block had long familiarized itself with the local waters, an entirely different type of globetrotter had instinctively frequented these shores for eons.
Birds by the tens of thousands, representing a profusion of unique and intriguing waterfowl, continue to feel at home in the Golden Isles throughout the four seasons. This has been the case for millennia, including the short time that merchant ships plied these waters.
Brunswick’s natural deep-water harbor has only been a boating destination for a few centuries, and the huge floating parking lots known as Ro-Ro ships have only been calling Colonel’s Island in large numbers for a few decades. During this period, however, the worldwide shipping of vehicles made Brunswick a national leader in the rolling vehicle industry, with a port having the capacity to move hundreds of thousands of vehicles each year.
But the cycles of nature that dictate the movements of shorebirds and the tight trade schedules that drive the burgeoning local shipping industry have gone largely overlooked.
Then happened on September 8, 2019. That all changed when the 656-foot-long ro-ro ship Golden Ray capsized in St. Simons Strait with a cargo of 4,161 vehicles and about 380,000 gallons of bunker oil in its vessels. fuel tanks.
Oil leaks from the wreck have repeatedly soiled marsh habitat and beaches in the nearly two years since the sinking.
According to most accounts from the wildlife experts who keep track of it, the oil from the golden ray has tarnished the feathers of hundreds of shorebirds, possibly more. Fortunately, the actual damage was minimal. At least on paper.
As of September 2019, some 29 dead birds with oiled carcasses have been found in the habitat surrounding the sinking, according to Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, a Delaware group hired by the organizers of the clean-up operation. During this period, 18 oiled shorebirds were captured, processed and released into the wild. Ten oiled birds were euthanized, records show.
Most of the figures were generated after a massive midsummer dump from the Golden Ray in St. Simons Strait, when oil leaking from a separate section of the wreck ran aground on the marsh habitat and beaches on the southern end of St. Simons Island.
But the numbers don’t tell the full story, said Tim Keyes. Keyes is a wildlife biologist in the Georgia Department of Natural Resources who specializes in shorebirds. Few people know the local shorebirds better than Keyes.
Taking into account everything from migratory patterns to natural instincts and nesting habits, the impact on shorebirds is greater than the numbers suggest, Keyes said.
“There have definitely been impacts,” Keyes said. “We can’t quantify some of this, but it would be hard to imagine that there weren’t more significant impacts.”
The story untold by the numbers comes from the hundreds of oiled birds that were spotted but left alone, Keyes said. Global salvage biologists and people like Keyes have all taken a do no harm approach to oiled birds. If a bird was spotted with oil on it but not otherwise disabled, it was left alone. The theory behind this is that efforts to capture the bird could cause more damage than the oil itself.
Keyes can’t help but wonder about the long-term effects of oil on some of these birds.
For example, knots, semipalmated plovers and other species stop there to fatten up for grueling flights to distant migration areas, in some cases to the southern tip of South America. The birds that left here with oiled wings were surely handicapped on these epic migrations, he said.
“The oil on the fenders can neutralize their ability to migrate long distances,” Keyes said. “And in some cases, they fly nonstop for three or four days. It’s hard to imagine that there was no impact on these birds.”
Whatever their destination, birds are picky groomers.
“Then you have the toxins… ingested when a bird smooths those oiled feathers,” Keyes said. “This is something we weren’t documenting. We don’t have a concrete grip on it.”
Make no mistake, Keyes said, it’s a city of birds. The local marshes are part of the 80,000 acres of the Georgia coast that are designated a Landscape of Hemispheric Significance by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, a conservation group dedicated to conserving the habitat of shorebirds around the world. . Thousands upon thousands of shorebirds light up here throughout the year, from marathon migrants like the red knot to those shy local screechers known as marsh hens.
King terns, Wilson’s plovers and other species nest here in the thousands. The tolerable climates of Glynn County make this region a prime wintering location.
“Populations peak during spring and fall migrations, but we also host between 60,000 and 100,000 shorebirds each winter,” Keyes said.
Since the capsizing of the Golden Ray, MNR biologists have documented hundreds of cases of oiled birds that did not warrant human intervention, he said.
Weeks after the sinking, oil gushed out of vents in the hulls of the half-submerged wreckage, fouling about 25 miles of shore, including a heavily oiled portion of the Brunswick River.
“We have documented several hundred light to moderately oiled shorebirds in over 20 species,” Keyes said. “None of them have been incapacitated so much that we can capture them. One of the frustrating parts is that we will never know the real impact on these birds.”
Several smaller releases have occurred since efforts began in November to divide the wreckage into eight gigantic sections for removal, including an incident in May that prompted the Glynn County Health Department to issue an oil pollution warning for area beaches over Memorial Day weekend. The worst of these spills occurred in late July, when a dark cloud of oil from a completed cut tainted habitat and beaches on the southern tip of Simons Island.
Oil also reached a small expanse of shore on nearby Bird Island, where royal tern nesting was nearing completion. Keyes worked with biologists from all three states to capture 20 oiled king tern chicks who had yet to master flight. Ten of them were rehabilitated and released into the wild. Ten had to be euthanized.
MNR biologist Fletcher Smith has detected hundreds of oiled birds at this tern colony of more than 8,000 on Bird Island, Keyes said. Estimates are calculated by taking photos that capture segments of nesting areas, then counting the birds in each panel to get a total.
“We estimated that between 10 and 20 percent had light to moderate oiling,” Keyes said. “They were mostly spots and spots and my gut tells me most of these birds are probably fine. But it’s hard to know.”
And then there’s the local swing rails, those rarely seen full-time dwellers of the local salt marsh spartina grasses that most know as swamp hens.
“It almost certainly had an impact on the rails of the beating, swamp hens,” Keyes said. “These guys are all around our swamp. Again, we haven’t confirmed a flapper rail impact. But it would be hard to imagine there wasn’t.”
The last of the cutting operations on the wreck of the Golden Ray ended earlier this month. From the rescue operation it remains only to remove the last two sections of the sound.
There was no sign of another major oil spill.
Overall, Keyes said, the Golden Isles bird population has been fortunate. And lucky.
It could have been disastrous if the major spills of October 2019 had happened at another time, such as during the height of the nesting season, he noted. And oil from the large landfill in late July affected a small part of the Bird Island shore where most of the chicks had flown. Further down, “that would have been hundreds of oiled chicks instead of about 30 of them,” Keyes said.
Keyes said he has a good relationship with biologists from the tri-state based in Delaware. He said cleaning supervisors were ready to listen and take advice from biologists on environmental protection issues.
“Every drop of oil is bad, but it could have been a lot worse,” Keyes said. “The folks at Tri-State have been very responsive. It’s frustrating to see new major spills so late in the game, but I understand the challenges. This is the first, and hopefully the last time we have. a situation like this. “