Oil slick threatens nesting birds, spawning fish
Louisiana: The massive oil spill bearing down on Louisiana's fragile coast wetlands comes at the worst time for untold numbers of nesting birds and spawning fish whose young are most vulnerable to the toxic sludge.
Nearly all migratory birds in the Western Hemisphere stop over in the marshes surrounding the mouth of the Mississippi river and tens of thousands are currently guarding eggs laid along the shores.
There are brown pelicans - which were only recently removed from the endangered species list. There are terns, and gulls, and herons, and egrets, ducks and sparrows.
If they get coated in oil they can die in a matter of days or even hours. And since they fish close to the nests, they can also carry the oil back to their young.
The timing will make it harder to reach and rescue oiled birds because of the risk of trampling the eggs, said Jay Holcomb, director of International Bird Rescue Research Center.
"We've had times when we've had to leave oiled birds because it would kill more birds to get them," said Holcomb, one of a handful of specialists who have set up a triage center in Fort Jackson, Louisiana to clean and treat rescued birds.
The rich delta surrounding the mouth of the Mississippi River also provides prime spawning grounds for the fish, shrimp, crab and oysters which support a 2.4 billion dollar a year commercial and recreational fishing industry and supply a large chunk of the nation's wild catch.
And the oil is toxic to larvae.
The very topography which makes the bogs, marshes and swamps so appealing to wildlife makes it incredibly difficult to protect from an oil spill.
High tides and high winds can push the oil deep into the wetlands, which are accessible only by boat and offer few footholds for rescue workers and plenty of places for the frightened animals to hide.
Holcomb spent six months in Alaska treating birds oiled in the Exxon Valdez disaster.
About 1,600 were rescued. At least 500,000 died.
He's hoping it won't be that bad this time. It could, in fact, be much worse.
Nobody knows when the oil will stop gushing from a deep water well cracked open after an explosion sank an offshore oil platform run by British Petroleum on April 22.
The massive slick has spread to 3,500 square miles (9,000 square kilometers) - about the size of Puerto Rico - and an estimated 210,000 gallons are leaking into the Gulf of Mexico every day.
The coasts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida are threatened and the first wave of oil is expected to inundate the fragile wetlands south of New Orleans.
Miles of boom barriers have been placed to protect three of the most sensitive wildlife refuges which are home to about 34,000 nesting birds.