June 10, 2010 -- Rescuer David Hayden is on a mission. He fights his way through thick, overgrown mangroves in temperatures hovering close to 100 degrees, staving off attacks from birds angered by his mere presence and proximity to their nests.
On this trip today, Hayden and his rescue team captured three oil-loaded brown billed pelicans -- all less than a year old -- with their feathers stuck together because of the oil. The pelicans are a fragile species that were removed from the wildlife endangered list in 2009.
"Those three are the most heavily oiled on the island; they need to be saved," said Hayden of the sludge-covered birds.
Nearly two months after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, scores of sick, oil-covered birds have started to turn up in the delicate wetlands along the Louisiana coast, including waves of baby birds with their once white feathers already tainted with the black, hazardous sludge.
Efforts to save these most vulnerable victims of the spill have intensified since the first oil-soaked bird was found. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is concentrating much of its effort on the animal rescue facility in the tiny gulf coast city of Cat Island.
Rescue efforts have been delayed, though, by the labyrinthine topography of the Louisiana marshlands, where oil from the BP's Deepwater Horizon rig has started to come ashore. The mangroves are too thick, and the habitat too fragile for the canoes bearing rescuers to navigate. Rescuers insist the island is too densely populated with nesting birds to risk entry.
"There's plenty on the inside," Baker said. "There's no way of telling how many."
Though the baby birds have not yet ventured out of their nests, their mothers, coated with oil, are bringing the toxic mess with them as they return to feed their young.
"Yesterday was the first day we started receiving babies," said veterinarian Erica Miller, head of the animal rescue facility where the birds are brought to be cleaned. "The oil must have hit one of the nesting colonies, because the birds have it on the nesting colonies."
Though the island is surrounded by bright-orange booms meant to prevent the oil from reaching the delicate marshlands, it has reached the tiny island and threatens the lives of the more than 15,000 birds that call the island home.
Todd Baker, deputy incident commander of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries says the booms are simply too small to protect them.
"It's the best we currently have," Baker said. "It's been supplied to us. But for this location it's not sufficient."
At the resource center, Miller and the rest of her team work 12-hour days in the blazing Louisiana heat to save the scores of oily birds that come from all along the Louisiana coast, sent by one of the 45 teams like the one led by David Hayden.
"They come in 50,60,100 a day, Bart Seigel, a volunteer in the ER, said. "In the middle of the night, we unload helicopters. It's no easy chore."
Part doctor, part detective, Miller snaps photographs of all the birds that enter the facility and collects their oil-covered feathers to track the contaminants, a precaution she says is necessary because once washed, the facility could no longer prove where the source of the oil.
"It turns out there's something called spills of opportunity," Miller said. "People say, 'There's 8 billion gallons of oil out there. I can flush my bilge tank now, it's not going to make a difference.' And so people end up contributing other oils."
An exam with Miller is the first stop on the road to survival. Birds cleaned and processed at the ER have a 50 to 80 percent survival rate. Those that survive the cleaning ordeal are tagged and then driven or flown to the east coast of Florida. Rescuers hope they will remain clear of the oil in Louisiana but acknowledge that they might not.
"If they stop the spill tomorrow, will it take two weeks, will it take two years to clean up the environment?" Miller asked. "Because I think as long as there's oil out there, we're going to be getting birds."