Kansas wildlife specialists aid birds in Gulf

STAFFORD — As white pelicans rested on a nearby Kansas marsh amid their journey south, Bill Waln recalled a day that he saw a five-mile stretch of the Gulf Coast's shoreline drenched in oil.

A tropical storm had swept in the murky goo, which was 6 to 8 inches thick across the water. Waln said it was the most drastic view he experienced during his 14-day tour of duty in the Mississippi Delta, scouring the waters for oil-tainted avian.

"It was memorable," said Waln, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fire management officer based at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. "You don't ever want to see stuff like that — you don't ever want to see the effect of what we humans do to negatively impact the wildlife."

That was two months ago. Now, as fall migration starts from Canada and northern states like the Dakotas and begins to filter downward, Waln says it's probable some of the birds that find haven at the refuge this fall and winter will eventually end up in BP's oil spill zone — especially if it is a harsh winter.

"The influx, the sheer number of birds that are coming down, it might require getting more people down there," Waln said of the Gulf Coast.

Waln was one of four Quivira employees and more than 2,500 with the nation's fish and wildlife service who volunteered as part of the service's wildlife recovery and reconnaissance team that helped rescue wildlife after the April BP oil spill.

Refuge manager Dan Severson, supervisory range technician David McCauley, biological science technician Melanie Olds and Waln spent two weeks in areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, living on a barge and working 12- to 15-hour days scoping the landscape for oily and injured birds.

Some, including McCauley, spent hours walking the beaches in search of wildlife. Waln, who served as the leader of a 25-person crew, said he spent his time managing four boat teams that patrolled 85 to 125 miles of water each day. The birds they found were taken to a rehab center where officials hoped to clean, heal and release the birds back into the wild.

Injured birds were fewer by the time the Quivira crews made it to the Gulf. Olds said she only saw a few oiled or sick birds on her two trips, which occurred in early July and late August.

"I had really wanted to handle a pelican," she said. "But, this was a good thing. It meant that less oil was coming on shore and the birds were not getting into it."

Waln, stationed in Dennis Pass, La., in early August, said his teams averaged two birds a day.

"That would raise or lower depending on how much oil was coming to shore," he said.

The signs of improvement are positive, Olds said. However, the signs of the spill more than five months ago will linger, Waln said.

Each day, a few more birds are found, many of them dead. To date, according to the fish and wildlife service, more than 4,000 dead birds have been recovered, including brown pelicans, royal terns, northern gannets and gulls.

Others will never be accounted for.

"The impact is lessening a bit," he said, but added, "We're just starting the fall migration. I know biologists down there are going to watch how those birds do over the winter."

In fact, millions of birds will funnel through the Central Flyway, with some merging into the Mississippi Flyway — the location of the oil spill.

"We heard this week that whooping cranes are in North Dakota," Waln said, noting the cranes' habitat on the coast is fortunately a little east of the oil spill.

The oil spill was a horrific incident that turned into a learning experience, Olds said of her trip.

"I felt like I was doing something that was very useful — making a difference," she said.