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Oil spill life-threatening to water birds

January 11, 2011

The belted kingfisher is dependent upon streams, ponds and rivers for much of its food. It dives for fish from a lofty perch. (Courtesy photo)

The morning of Jan. 3 promised a return to some sort of normalcy. The holidays were now a pleasant memory. Awakening to the sunlight hitting our east windows was a reminder of a new day for 2005.

Halfway through a cup of coffee, the phone rang. Recognizing the game warden’s voice, I listened as he asked us to meet him in Stanton. The urgency of his request was understandable. Knowing about how long it would take him to drive from the Pecos River, we decided upon a meeting time.

Hurrying through breakfast, Art and I prepared for the worst. Towels, rubber gloves, cardboard boxes and a thermos were loaded in our vehicle after a phone call to Lubbock.

As we neared the exit on Interstate 20, Art asked if I knew how many birds to expect.

“Two so far, but there could be more,” was all I could tell him. Even the officer was unaware of how many were involved and of these birds’ chances.

Waiting in the parking lot of an abandoned Dairy Queen, we watched the northbound trucks headed toward Lamesa. Soon, we might be traveling that same route.

Ten minutes later, the officer arrived. “I’ve brought you what they’ve found,” he said. Since we were willing to either bathe or transport the oiled birds to the wildlife center, it would enable the warden to return to the spill site.

Opening the door to his vehicle, he handed me a large zip-locked bag. Inside was a lifeless kingfisher. Brought out next was a cardboard box with the top taped open. If closed, toxic fumes could have killed the next bird.

Peering inside, I noticed a grebe struggling to breathe.
“No more, yet,” came the officer’s comment as I looked at him with a quizzical frown. Except for their beaks, feet and overall shape, the birds were barely recognizable because of their coating with crude oil.

Since we had discussed the chances any bird or mammal would have had if immersed in the spill, the warden knew, as did we, that the outcome was dismal. Although it was vital that the birds be taken to a licensed rehabber or facility, the reality of the situation, for the game warden, was complicated in itself.

As the closest licensed rehabilitators, we could bathe the grebe in an effort to save it. However, after finding oil in its mouth and down its throat, seeing the extent of its exposure and recognizing its near-death-gasping-for-air, the game warden and we accepted the futility of such an effort.

With South Plains as the closest center qualified to accept the oiled birds, we had offered to deliver them. Instead of anticipating recovery, we would be providing a specimen for study, and hopefully, one that could defy my prognosis.

Due to my earlier conversation with volunteer Gail Barnes, I was advised that the agent for U. S. Fish & Wildlife, Department of the Interior, headquartered in Lubbock, would be taking any birds that died as a result of the spill.

By the time we reached Lamesa, the aroma of crude oil was prevalent in spite of flow-through ventilation. Stopping at a convenience store, Art lowered the windows for fresh air while I checked on the grebe. Having ingested and absorbed too much oil, it no longer was suffering.

The rest of our drive was solemn. Encouraging, however, had been the game warden’s description of the response to the spill. Never had he seen so many agencies, companies, trucks and personnel converge at a spill site. For a mile and a half was a concerted effort to clean the river and rescue wildlife.

During 37 years of wild bird rescue, we have had to accept the tragedies that befall wildlife. Whether caused by accident, criminal intent, or nature itself, it exemplifies what an older friend once cautioned: “Everything’s a learning.”

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