I've Fallen in Love with the Pelicans by JT Blatty

In April of 2010, the world watched in horror as images of brown pelicans, plastered and suffocating in tide-pools of oil, flickered across their television screens during the largest accidental marine oil spill in history: The Gulf oil spill.

Months later, the Macondo well was finally sealed and the media slowly pulled their cameras away, redirecting their attention to other disasters around the world. They left much of the public with the most disturbing visuals to store as lasting memories, with many stories untold and unfinished.

My documentary, “I’ve fallen in love with the pelicans”, is a story of the birds after the oil; about the people who spent endless hours and months of their lives to rehabilitate every single in-processed bird; a story of the birds that didn’t make it, and of the ones that were banded and released back into the wild. It’s also a story that went on months after the Macondo well was sealed . . . and, two-years later, continues to unfold.

From April 2010 through January 2011, the Gulf oil spill’s Wildlife Response Effort (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida) rehabilitated and released 1,465 birds. 612 were brown pelicans.

Since the 1990’s, wildlife rehabilitation organizations such as Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research (the lead wildlife responders during the Gulf spill), have been struggling to counter a widespread belief that emerges with every oil spill–that wildlife rehabilitation is unsuccessful. This belief was the result of a widely published investigation that tracked rehabilitated and released pelicans from oil spills off of the coast of California. The findings were that rehabilitated birds, specifically pelicans, rarely survive more than a few years in the wild after being released, and if they do, they fail to breed. It also suggested that funding for wildlife rehabilitation following an oil spill should be redirected towards other areas of concern.

Although Tri-State immediately wrote an elaborate rebuttal to the investigation, citing faulty conclusions and requesting critical supporting data that was omitted from the report, they were denied publication, leaving the public with only one side of the story.

Over the years, rehabilitators have failed to receive sufficient funding for efficient tracking devices, but since the Gulf oil spill, there has been a community effort among individual scientists and Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (DWF) members to keep a watchful eye on the Gulf’s banded birds in their areas.

As of March 2012, there have been confirmed sightings of 98 individual released, healthy brown pelicans in the wild. Of those 98, there have been 8 sightings of Louisiana’s brown pelicans in Georgia, nesting with eggs or young, and 17 healthy chicks are confirmed to have fledged from adults that were oiled and rehabilitated during the spill.

What most of the public is not aware of is the mortality rate of baby brown pelicans: Only 30-40% survive their first year in the wild under natural circumstances. Over half of the 612 released brown pelicans were in their first year of life–many developing the skills to recognize fish and feed on their own from the rehabilitators in the absence of their parents.

So far, only 17 of them have been found dead. According to Dr. Erica Miller, Tri-State oil spill response veterinarian, “this is a remarkable statistic, not only suggesting that rehabilitation is successful, but that time in captivity with extra food and safety from predators may have helped them past the point of juvenile mortality.”

When the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, I, like the media, was determined to capture the most tragic of sights, but my motives quickly changed after spending a week with a few charter captains, contracted by BP as transporters, in Venice, Louisiana. They were disgusted with the media and daily cash offers to take them to the “oiled pelicans;” but most of all, they were sickened by the media’s eagerness to find tragedy, and their deep disappointment when none could be found.

I could empathize: Louisiana was their home, as it was also my home. It wasn’t just about capturing a priceless photograph and then leaving for the next job.

In June, I submitted my application to volunteer with the Louisiana State Animal Response Team (LSART), the local organization providing manpower to Tri-State. In August, I began working shifts at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Hammond, Louisiana.

“I’ve fallen in love with the pelicans” is a phrase I heard more than once from the people who gave the Gulf’s wildlife a second chance.

JT Blatty is a New Orleans, Lousiana based photographer.
To view more of JT's work, please visit her website.

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Brown pelicans as seen through the mesh cage of an outdoor aviary. Birds were transferred to the outdoor aviaries to exercise and continue rehabilitation after they had been stabilized and washed. The white mesh walls provided privacy in order to minimize the birds’ further disturbance by humans. The birds were fed and monitored twice daily throughout the rehabilitation period.
: Brown pelicans as seen through the mesh cage of an outdoor aviary. Birds were transferred to the outdoor aviaries to exercise and continue rehabilitation after they had been stabilized and washed. The white mesh walls provided privacy in order to minimize the birds’ further disturbance by humans. The birds were fed and monitored twice daily throughout the rehabilitation period.

Tri-State Bird Rescue veterinarian and assistant wildlife rehabilitators evaluating a brown pelican in the medical in-process bay. This was stage one of treatment, where the birds were evaluated as oiled or injured, and were then either stabilized and put in line for the wash, placed in the intensive care unit, or euthanized when their condition precluded treatment and eventual release to the wild.
: Tri-State Bird Rescue veterinarian and assistant wildlife rehabilitators evaluating a brown pelican in the medical in-process bay. This was stage one of treatment, where the birds were evaluated as oiled or injured, and were then either stabilized and put in line for the wash, placed in the intensive care unit, or euthanized when their condition precluded treatment and eventual release to the wild.

This brown pelican had sustained extensive injuries unrelated to the spill and was euthanized moments after this shot was taken.
: This brown pelican had sustained extensive injuries unrelated to the spill and was euthanized moments after this shot was taken.

Brown pelican during the rinse phase of the wash. Each bird (with a rare exception) was washed only once but in 2 or 3 successive tubs, depending on how much oil was on them. Once a tub was saturated with oil, the bird was placed into the next “layer,” or tub, as the water could no longer effectively remove oil. Once the water no longer became discolored from the oil, the bird could then be rinsed.
: Brown pelican during the rinse phase of the wash. Each bird (with a rare exception) was washed only once but in 2 or 3 successive tubs, depending on how much oil was on them. Once a tub was saturated with oil, the bird was placed into the next “layer,” or tub, as the water could no longer effectively remove oil. Once the water no longer became discolored from the oil, the bird could then be rinsed.

Prior to birds going through the wash, rehabilitators conducted a feather test in order to measure the appropriate amount of Dawn to be added to the wash. A successfully cleaned and healthy feather is one that regains its waterproofing ability. Here you see two sample feathers from the same bird, one prior to the wash, and the second the "test" feather that had been washed successfully with the correct dosage of Dawn.
: Prior to birds going through the wash, rehabilitators conducted a feather test in order to measure the appropriate amount of Dawn to be added to the wash. A successfully cleaned and healthy feather is one that regains its waterproofing ability. Here you see two sample feathers from the same bird, one prior to the wash, and the second the "test" feather that had been washed successfully with the correct dosage of Dawn.


 

Brown pelican inside of the drying cage. After the wash, even though the water was warm, the birds body temperatures tended to drop. In order to prevent hypothermia they were placed in these cages under infrared heating lamps and were monitored every 20 minutes until their body temperatures recovered. During this process they were fed water and or/ Pedialyte to prevent dehydration from the heat.
: Brown pelican inside of the drying cage. After the wash, even though the water was warm, the birds body temperatures tended to drop. In order to prevent hypothermia they were placed in these cages under infrared heating lamps and were monitored every 20 minutes until their body temperatures recovered. During this process they were fed water and or/ Pedialyte to prevent dehydration from the heat.

Row of outdoor aviaries.
: Row of outdoor aviaries.

Brown pelicans inside of an outdoor aviary.
: Brown pelicans inside of an outdoor aviary.

Rehabilitators syringe feeding a previously oiled brown pelican inside of an outdoor aviary. Syringe feeding a liquid diet provided extra hydration and ensured they were receiving an adequate amount of calories needed until they began picking up food on their own. Because many of the oiled, in processed brown pelicans were juvenile (less than year old), they hadn’t yet developed the ability to hunt for their own food and still depended on feeding from their parents. This was a constant struggle for the rehabilitators: having to teach the juvenile pelicans how to recognize and swallow fish for the first time, and simultaneously prevent them from becoming too accustomed to humans which would impair their chances of survival in the wild.
: Rehabilitators syringe feeding a previously oiled brown pelican inside of an outdoor aviary. Syringe feeding a liquid diet provided extra hydration and ensured they were receiving an adequate amount of calories needed until they began picking up food on their own. Because many of the oiled, in processed brown pelicans were juvenile (less than year old), they hadn’t yet developed the ability to hunt for their own food and still depended on feeding from their parents. This was a constant struggle for the rehabilitators: having to teach the juvenile pelicans how to recognize and swallow fish for the first time, and simultaneously prevent them from becoming too accustomed to humans which would impair their chances of survival in the wild.

Dr. Erica Miller conducts a physical examination on a brown pelican that is potentially ready for release. During the release physicals, the rehabilitators would evaluate for full range of motion in all of the joints, the feather condition, parasites, and wounds or sores that were often self-inflicted on their wrists from running into the cage walls. Each bird had to pass the exam in good health prior to being approved for release in order to prevent any disadvantages to their survival in the wild
: Dr. Erica Miller conducts a physical examination on a brown pelican that is potentially ready for release. During the release physicals, the rehabilitators would evaluate for full range of motion in all of the joints, the feather condition, parasites, and wounds or sores that were often self-inflicted on their wrists from running into the cage walls. Each bird had to pass the exam in good health prior to being approved for release in order to prevent any disadvantages to their survival in the wild

IBRRC (International Bird Rescue Research Center) rehabilitator conducts a final flight evaluation on two separate brown pelican to ensure they are ready for release. The "spook" game was most often the tactic for this: to prevent wildlife habituation and a safe transition back into the wild, the rehabilitators would intentionally scare the pelicans into flight with their nets. Because so many of the rehabilitators grew attached to the pelicans over time, it wasn
: IBRRC (International Bird Rescue Research Center) rehabilitator conducts a final flight evaluation on two separate brown pelican to ensure they are ready for release. The "spook" game was most often the tactic for this: to prevent wildlife habituation and a safe transition back into the wild, the rehabilitators would intentionally scare the pelicans into flight with their nets. Because so many of the rehabilitators grew attached to the pelicans over time, it wasn't easy to intentionally make them "hate" humans, but it had to be done.


 

A royal tern is being evaluated for a possible parasite.
: A royal tern is being evaluated for a possible parasite.

Euthanized birds and birds that were dead upon arrival to the center were immediately handed over to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (also present at the facility) to be tagged, bagged, and then stored in a trailer/freezer. Eventually the birds were transported to the national center as evidence in a current federal investigation that is researching the causes of death (oil related, natural causes or injury).
: Euthanized birds and birds that were dead upon arrival to the center were immediately handed over to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (also present at the facility) to be tagged, bagged, and then stored in a trailer/freezer. Eventually the birds were transported to the national center as evidence in a current federal investigation that is researching the causes of death (oil related, natural causes or injury).


 

Brown pelicans and rehabilitator during a treatment session in outdoor aviary.
: Brown pelicans and rehabilitator during a treatment session in outdoor aviary.

Tri-State rehabilitator performing a “flap test” on a royal tern in an outdoor aviary. This test was primarily performed on birds with wing injuries and was also used as a method of physical therapy. By holding the bird and moving it up and down in the air as it would fly, the rehabilitator could evaluate the symmetry of the wings flapping, the flapping rate, and its lift power while simultaneously forcing the bird to exercise an injured wing. Sometimes the test was performed on a non-injured bird that had the ability to fly but simply wouldn’t on their own.
: Tri-State rehabilitator performing a “flap test” on a royal tern in an outdoor aviary. This test was primarily performed on birds with wing injuries and was also used as a method of physical therapy. By holding the bird and moving it up and down in the air as it would fly, the rehabilitator could evaluate the symmetry of the wings flapping, the flapping rate, and its lift power while simultaneously forcing the bird to exercise an injured wing. Sometimes the test was performed on a non-injured bird that had the ability to fly but simply wouldn’t on their own.

Brown pelican preening its feathers
: Brown pelican preening its feathers

The dead freezer/trailer for transportation and storage of the dead.
: The dead freezer/trailer for transportation and storage of the dead.

Each bird’s status and location was updated daily on the board.
: Each bird’s status and location was updated daily on the board.

Laughing seagull receives its federal identification band. All birds received two bands the day prior to their scheduled release: One steel band, and one plastic, bright pink band with large, bold alpha numerals. The steel band, as shown here, is intended to last forever, but is only readable if the bird is in hand. The pink, plastic bands tend to break and are temporary, but they also allow people to read the alpha numeral identification from far away. The pink bands were unique to the Gulf oil spill.
: Laughing seagull receives its federal identification band. All birds received two bands the day prior to their scheduled release: One steel band, and one plastic, bright pink band with large, bold alpha numerals. The steel band, as shown here, is intended to last forever, but is only readable if the bird is in hand. The pink, plastic bands tend to break and are temporary, but they also allow people to read the alpha numeral identification from far away. The pink bands were unique to the Gulf oil spill.

"Micro-baby," the youngest brown pelican to be in processed and rehabilitated (also the longest to have stayed in the center), on a boat en route to Raccoon Island, Louisiana, on his release day. Micro was the biggest challenge to the center, as because he was so young when in processed (not even with feathers yet), he had become more habituated than all of the other brown pelicans (to the point where he was an outcast amongst the others in his aviary). There was much discussion and debate as to what would be done with Micro if he wasn
: "Micro-baby," the youngest brown pelican to be in processed and rehabilitated (also the longest to have stayed in the center), on a boat en route to Raccoon Island, Louisiana, on his release day. Micro was the biggest challenge to the center, as because he was so young when in processed (not even with feathers yet), he had become more habituated than all of the other brown pelicans (to the point where he was an outcast amongst the others in his aviary). There was much discussion and debate as to what would be done with Micro if he wasn't qualified for a release by the "final release" in October. If a zoo would not take him, he may have had to of been euthanized. It was decided shortly before the final release that he would be sent back into the wild. Needless to say, everyone involved with the wildlife response effort became extremely attached to Micro, and every single rehabilitator wished they could have been present on his release day. All of us wondered if he was making it until a gust a good news stormed through last month: Micro was spotted back on Raccoon Island (after a early 2011 sighting in Texas), so not only is he making it, but he's getting around!

Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LADWF) offloading the crated birds for a release on Raccoon Island, Louisiana. Release locations were selected by the LADWF and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. During the initial stages of the oil spill, when Louisiana’s coast was still contaminated, coastal and open water birds such as the brown pelicans were released in Florida, Georgia and Texas in the hopes that they would remain in clean areas. (Non-coastal birds, or birds that do not require open water such as the green herons were taken inland to Sherburn Refuge). After August, Louisiana’s coast was declared clean enough for the birds to be released in their own state.

Because it’s natural for young brown pelicans to fledge from islands, and because a majority of the rehabilitated pelicans were immature, they were released on islands in existing colonies with the hopes that they would learn fishing skills and other pelican behaviors from the mature adults. Brown pelicans are much like people, and they mimic the behaviors of their peers to fit in with the flock.

Each release location was also evaluated for an adequate amount of food to be present in the area. Just as a precaution, LADWF also placed large amounts of sardines on the beach to get the brown pelicans started.
: Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LADWF) offloading the crated birds for a release on Raccoon Island, Louisiana. Release locations were selected by the LADWF and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. During the initial stages of the oil spill, when Louisiana’s coast was still contaminated, coastal and open water birds such as the brown pelicans were released in Florida, Georgia and Texas in the hopes that they would remain in clean areas. (Non-coastal birds, or birds that do not require open water such as the green herons were taken inland to Sherburn Refuge). After August, Louisiana’s coast was declared clean enough for the birds to be released in their own state. Because it’s natural for young brown pelicans to fledge from islands, and because a majority of the rehabilitated pelicans were immature, they were released on islands in existing colonies with the hopes that they would learn fishing skills and other pelican behaviors from the mature adults. Brown pelicans are much like people, and they mimic the behaviors of their peers to fit in with the flock. Each release location was also evaluated for an adequate amount of food to be present in the area. Just as a precaution, LADWF also placed large amounts of sardines on the beach to get the brown pelicans started.


 

Released royal tern flying by Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
: Released royal tern flying by Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Micro Baby follows the rehabilitators instead of flying into a flock. Eventually he did in fact fly away, after being chased numerous times.
: Micro Baby follows the rehabilitators instead of flying into a flock. Eventually he did in fact fly away, after being chased numerous times.

Habituation of the juvenile, brown pelicans was nearly impossible to prevent, and they often had to be chased into flight after release, as they would continue to linger around the humans instead of joining a nearby flock of wild, brown pelicans. This was not a common problem for the other species such as the royal terns that immediately broke into flight.
: Habituation of the juvenile, brown pelicans was nearly impossible to prevent, and they often had to be chased into flight after release, as they would continue to linger around the humans instead of joining a nearby flock of wild, brown pelicans. This was not a common problem for the other species such as the royal terns that immediately broke into flight.

Brown pelicans launch into flight over Raccoon Island, Louisiana, on their release day.
: Brown pelicans launch into flight over Raccoon Island, Louisiana, on their release day.


 

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