NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A Louisiana island that provides a crucial nesting ground for pelicans and other seabirds is being restored to nearly its former size after decades of coastal erosion and the devastating blow of an offshore oil spill 10 years ago.
About 6,500 brown pelicans and 3,000 smaller seabirds cram their nests every summer onto Queen Bess Island, which shrank from 45 acres (18 hectares) in 1956 to about 5 acres (2 hectares) by 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon spill fouled its beaches with oily gunk.
Though barely a blip of an island off the Gulf of Mexico in Barataria Bay, Queen Bess plays an outsize role as one of Louisiana’s largest rookeries for brown pelicans, supplying prime real estate for up to a fifth of the state’s nests. It’s also where the pelican, the Louisiana state bird, was reintroduced in the 1960s after pesticides had killed off the entire population.
Loss of coastal wetlands and other problems have crowded the big birds into far fewer colonies than they had two decades ago, according to Todd Baker, the biologist supervising restoration work for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The number of colonies has fallen 54 percent since 2010, he said.
The $18 million to restore Queen Bess Island and funds for future monitoring and upkeep flow from a $20 billion settlement that the federal government and the five Gulf Coast states reached with energy giant BP PLC for environmental damage from the 2010 spill.
The offshore explosion and fire that year on BP’s leased drilling rig killed 11 people. The well spewed more than 100 million gallons (378 million liters) of oil into the water over 87 days.
When the oil reached the island about 45 miles (72 kilometers) south of New Orleans, brown pelicans and other birds could be seen struggling, their wings weighed down by the black muck. About 1,000 died.
“This is the first time we’ve done any really large-scale restoration specifically for birds. And I can’t wait to see the results” as birds arrive, Baker said.
Under the restoration project, contractors for Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority have dredged up Mississippi River sand and pumped it inside two rock outlines. Those outlines were nearly all that remained of failed attempts in the 1990s to rebuild the island using silt dredged nearby. This time around they’re using barges to bring in the more stable sand. The authority also has built a line of rock breakwaters 75 to 95 feet (23 to 29 meters) from shore to slow erosion and provide calm water for young birds.
Once a mere strip of land, the island now covers 37 acres (15 hectares), providing much-needed space for the increasingly cramped birds. Most of the island is being restored as a pelican habitat, with 7 acres (2.8 hectares) for skimmers, terns and other birds that nest on rocks.
In recent years, Baker said, nests have been so jammed “you can’t hardly step on land without touching a nest.”
He said the crowding has made the island’s woody plants look like apartment houses, with nest above nest above nest: perhaps a laughing gull on the ground, an egret or roseate spoonbill in middle branches and a brown pelican nest at the top.
“It was cool to look at but not necessarily good for those birds,” Baker said.
In an assist to the birds, The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission designated the island a wildlife refuge in November. The commission is taking comments on rules that, among other things, forbid people from stepping on the island or fishing inside the breakwaters for eight months of the year.
Restoration work should be completed by a Feb. 15 deadline, Baker said. He added that remaining work includes creating ramps on which young birds that still can’t fly can walk in and out of the water.
Contractors also will plant about 24,000 woody plants for species such as night herons and egrets, as well as pelicans, to build their nests. Those are essentially 3-foot-high (1-meter-high) sticks, Baker said. He noted that while pelicans prefer nesting on scrub-shrubs, they can also build nests on grass or even bare ground. The ground-nesting terns, skimmers and gulls will probably use the expanses of bare sand between the plants as well as the rocky area created for them, he said.
Most important for Baker: Will pelicans return to the island where they built nests or were hatched? Five hundred were banded last year to help him and other conservationists answer that question.