Raccoon Island is a major seabird rookery in the mouth of Terrebonne Bay. It is the last island in the chain of barrier islands that stretches west from the mouth of the Mississippi River, and is home to thousands of seabirds including Brown Pelicans, Black Skimmers, Terns and Laughing Gulls. It was also the site of oil washing ashore in early July. There was only one layer of boom around the island which was not anchored well at all, and the winds and surf which drove the oil in, also pushed the boom far up onto the island, and right through the Royal Tern colony, and into the mangroves in which the Brown Pelicans nest.
A Cornell film crew led by Marc Dantzker was the first to witness the catastrophe on this island, and New Orleans photographer Jerry Moran was quick on the scene and captured the gruesome effects of the oil and the poor response. On a subsequent trip in August, Jerry and an independent research team travelled there to document the destruction and take samples from the dead birds, many of which did not appear to be oiled. What they found were freshly expired birds, and many more along the shore that had not been collected. With this in mind, and the newly discovered dead birds of Madoto Island close by, I travelled to Raccoon Island on September 5th with Shawn Carey from the Massachusetts Audubon Society and local wildlife photographers Charlie Bush and Darlene Eschete. We wanted to investigate if the mortality on the island was from past events, or if there was ongoing death among the birds there.
We had been under way, zooming through the marshes and out into the bay long before the sun rose over the spartina. Shrimpers were just hitting the docks in Bayou Dularge as we passed in the fresh morning air, and a group of Tri-colored Herons passed over in the dawn crepuscule on their way to their foraging grounds. It took about 45 minutes to get out to the gulf and to this last island, and as we approached from the west, thousands of Royal Terns were foraging along the southern shore of a sand spit island just west of Raccoon. I counted approximately 8,000 birds in the air all around us as we approached our destination.
Hundreds of Pelicans Fill the Air on the Western End of Raccoon Island
Raccoon Island is a large island, perhaps three miles in length, and has a wide sandy beach in the front, with a swath of Black Mangroves and marsh on the bayside. The gulls, terns and Skimmers nest on the beach, while the thousands of Brown Pelicans and wading birds utilize the stubby mangroves to build their flimsy stick nests in. I had not seen a Pelican chick for sometime on any of the other nesting colonies and assumed that breeding was all done, which made me a little more relaxed about stepping foot on the island. As we landed some of the birds roosting on the eastern tip of the island rose to the air, but quickly settled back down.
Darlene was first off the boat, and the first thing she saw was a pile of feathers from a dead gull. It looked like it had been there for a long time, as the bones were bleached, and the Ghost Crabs had not left any bit of flesh behind.
The Remains of a Laughing Gull Outside of a Ghost Crab Hole
Stepping onto the island, I quickly saw that tarballs and older pancake sized patties were all along the shoreline. Some of the mangroves on the front edge were stained with oil. As we made our way to the eastern tip we discovered a mat of oil pushed high up on the island, almost to the dune grass. I dug down around its edges to see if there was more oil covered by sand, but it appeared isolated. In fact, compared to the damage witnessed elsewhere, the volume of oil found on the island was much less, and appeared to have made landfall in one or two single events, and not throughout time.
A Mat of Weathered Oil Continues to Contaminate one of the Most Important Seabird Habitats in Louisiana
As happy as we were to see the smaller volume of oil on the shores of one of Louisiana's most important colonies, we were distressed at the fact that the oil still remained. Granted, nesting has just recently finished up here in the Gulf, so crews have not been able to get out there, but it appeared that very few tarballs were continuing to wash up, so that if cleaned from the oil it is likely that this island would remain oil free. The amount of oil on this beach might seem trivial in comparison to the millions upon millions of gallons still out there, when you take into account the importance of this island as bird habitat and the fact that if a commercial fisherman discharged one one thousandth of the amount of oil still left on the shores of Raccoon Island they would face serious fines and perhaps even criminal charges it's infuriating that more is not being done.
One of Five Piping Plovers Seen on the Shores of Raccoon Island
As we began to head west along the island two Piping Plovers scurried by on the shoreline, right through remaining tar patties and added an exclamation point to what I was feeling. The allocation of resources during this catastrophe has been very poorly managed, as hundreds of people clean spotless white sand beaches while other areas remain ignored, even vitally important bird habitat. We saw five Piping Plovers in a half mile stretch of oiled beach, as well as many other migrant shorebirds. We estimated between 3-4,000 Brown Pelicans roosting along the shores as well.
While I was glad to see that more oil had not contaminated the islands in this western part of the chain, it was disheartening to say the least that nothing was being done. Just a handful of independent journalists and biologists have witnessed this area during the catastrophe, and again, one has to wonder if the resources aren't being allocated purposefully in more visible areas, at the expense of perhaps more important places. It becomes less of a question if you look at this document leaked to me be a spill responder , "place special emphasis on remaining visible in areas of heavy public use"!!!!!
On the island, we also encountered a dead Bottle-nosed Dolphin, which Darlene had discovered on a trip with the World Animal Awareness Society 9 days prior. After calling it in to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, they must have been on the island since, as they had marked the dolphin with a florescent, "LDWF". It appeared that a small tissue sample had been taken from the throat of the Dolphin, but no necropsy was performed. I'm no mortician, but if the death was spill related, I imagine that the causes would be visible in the vital organs, and not from accumulated toxicity in the flesh of the animal. It would be interesting to know if this animal was counted in the official tally, or if they're going to just rely on formulas to determine how many dolphins were killed by the spill.
A Bottle-nosed Dolphin found dead on the shores of raccoon Island