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63 rescued Gulf oil spill birds reach new Texas home


June 23, 2010 at 1:23 a.m.

Crates with two pelicans each are released into San Antonio Bay. Officials with the U.S. Fisheries Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife, U.S. Geological Service and the Coast Guard all pitched in Wednesday to relocate 62 pelicans from the Louisiana Gulf oil spill to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Austwell.

AUSTWELL - Brown pelicans exited kennels two at a time and stretched their wings, their beaks tucked into their chests, as members of the media and onlookers snapped photos and watched.

Sixty-three birds - one Northern Gannet, the rest brown pelicans - were released to their new home Wednesday at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge after being rescued from the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

"These are the lucky ones," Margaret Wild, the on-site veterinarian, said. "These are birds that were fortunate enough to receive the best care available."

Wild championed the "big team effort" that led to the rescue of these birds, the second group to be released at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge since 38 rehabilitated birds that were oiled in the Gulf spill arrived here last week.

A unified command was organized to manage response to the oil spill. Fifteen government agencies and organizations comprise the unified command. Representatives from some of those organizations, along with state departments and agencies, were on hand to help with the release.


Some of the birds looked discombobulated, arriving in seven white vans after a two-hour flight from New Orleans to the Aransas County Airport in Rockport. It took about 15 minutes for most of the birds to flee the shallow waters in the bay just off the shore. They swam and preened before taking off toward the horizon.

"They haven't seen the sky or ocean in two weeks," Wild said. "It's probably something like getting out of the hospital."

Alex Nunez, a pollution biologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, was part of the response effort that saw cooperation between state and federal departments as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, the Texas General Land Office and private wildlife handlers.

Nunez said the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge was chosen because its habitat is similar to what the birds were used to in Louisiana.

"Our system here is very similar to Louisiana's," Nunez said, adding that there is an established population of brown pelicans in the San Antonio Bay.

Genetics was another factor, he said. Texas brown pelicans are more genetically similar to the ones rescued off the coast of Louisiana and belong to the same subspecies.


Nancy Brown, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, does not expect there to be a problem between the Louisiana birds and their native counterparts or any other avian species.

"We do ask the question, 'Are we putting too many birds in there?'" she said. "And that's what we're trying to gauge, and that's what we're trying to be careful of. We don't want our Texas brown pelicans to be competing for food and nesting areas with these brown pelicans that have been brought in."

To make sure over-competition doesn't happen, the birds will be spread out across the Texas coastline in future releases.

On Sunday, more birds will be released into the water of the San Antonio Bay at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Brown said they won't likely know how many birds are coming until Friday.

Buddy and Mary Ann Grigsby snapped photographs minutes before the birds arrived in vans.

The married couple heard the pelicans would be released here on the news.

"It makes you sad to think of how many birds didn't make it," Mary Ann said.

The death toll of birds since the Gulf oil spill stands at 1,024, according to unified command website, Many of those are brown pelicans.

Not all of the deaths were necessarily caused by the oil spill. Causes of death will be determined later, according to the website. The collected birds are all tagged to identify them as oil spill victims.


Rhonda Murgatroyd, a Seabrook resident, responds to oil spills to rescue and rehabilitate wildlife. She had not been on Texas soil since the Deepwater Horizon rig sank in April.

Feet away from a nearby pier, she observed a bird 20 minutes after its release into the bay.

"I hope that's one of our birds diving for fish," she said.

Murgatroyd has been in Louisiana the last two months, combing the coast for oiled wildlife.

A rehabilitation facility in Louisiana currently houses about 400 birds whose feathers were coated in oil and then cleaned, she said.

Those numbers change every day as response efforts continue in the Gulf, she said.

Texas responders have not collected an oiled bird so far while 863 oiled birds, 208 of which were found dead, have been picked up off the Louisiana coast.

"Most of the birds were completely soaked in oil," she said. "But we have so many people on the water that our success rate is really high."

Wild, the veterinarian, echoed that statement.

"This is a really nice success story," she said.



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