Helping Oiled Wildlife after Hurricane Sandy

An oiled bird is cleaned. Photograph courtesy of Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research Inc.

When a hurricane strikes, the human loss is palpable. Where I live, in New Brunswick, NJ, downed trees and broken windows were the worst of the damage. It takes only a short drive to reach places where the devastation was much worse. In some places people are still without power in their homes. In other places they have lost their homes entirely.

Hurricane Sandy caused extensive environmental destruction as well. You may have seen images of New Jersey’s storm-ravaged barrier islands on the news. In some cases it wasn’t the wind and flooding that caused the damage but the forces they released. In northern New Jersey, several oil refineries were damaged by the storm in spite of preparations made before the storm. Oil from these refineries spilled into surrounding wetlands affecting hundreds of geese, ducks, turtles and other wildlife.

Unlike large open water oil spills, such as the 2010 disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, smaller fresh water spills rarely receive national media attention. Yet the damage caused by these smaller spills accounts for the majority of wildlife casualties.

Fortunately, Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research Inc., a wildlife rehabilitation facility located in Newark, Delaware, specializes in oil spill response. Lynne Frink founded Tri-State in 1976 after witnessing the devastation caused by a series of oil spills on the Delaware River. Since then, Tri-State has researched the effects of oil on wildlife and developed effective treatment and response procedures that are used across the country.

This turtle was a victim of the oil spill. Photograph courtesy of Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research Inc.

After Hurricane Sandy, Tri-State has led the effort to catch, clean, and care for birds and other wildlife affected by several oil spills in New Jersey. Suzanne has attended Tri-State’s Oil Spill Training Workshop, and was recruited to help clean oiled birds. Knowing they were short on volunteers, Suzanne asked if I could come as well.

We met at Tri-state on Thursday November 8th. I watched a short training video, and then was put to work. Eight Canada geese had just arrived. Together with other volunteers, I held the oiled birds while Tri-State veterinarians Drs. Erica Miller and Charity Uman examined them.

First, we weighed each bird and took its temperature. Feathers provide waterproofing and help regulate a bird’s body temperature. When the feather structure is compromised by oil, it does not provide adequate insulation and the birds and can get dangerously cold. The birds were given fluids to hydrate them. Many were emaciated. The vets took blood and feather samples. They cleaned around the bird’s eyes and beaks. Oil is bad enough on the feathers, but it can also cause chemical burns to the eyes and skin. When ingested, it can damage internal organs.

Before returning the birds to the waiting area, each one was given a temporary leg band and photographed for evidence. With oil spills there are legal considerations. Federal law requires the company that spilled the oil to pay for clean up. I was not permitted to photograph oiled birds because the images would be considered evidence.

Water birds were not the only animals affected by the spill. A large snapping turtle and a little garter snake were also among the incoming patients. Although Tri-state is primarily a bird facility, they treat all oiled wildlife.

Suzanne and I spent the whole day helping to clean enclosures and prepare food for the animals. It was wonderful to see the transformation in the animals after they were cleaned and fed. As their health returned, so did their wild spirits. Many began to groom themselves and interact with each other. Unfortunately, help arrived too late for many animals. Rehabilitating oiled wildlife is challenging. In addition to the oil, other unknown storm water contaminates can add additional complications.

For animals that do survive, there is the matter of where to release them once they have recovered. They cannot be released into an environment where they may become re-oiled. It has been learned from experience that birds released elsewhere often find their way back to their original homes.

Fortunately, many of the turtles and birds affected by this spill have already been released. The oil clean-up efforts are going well. It will take time for the habitat to recover, but the immediate danger of re-oiling has been addressed in many places, allowing wildlife to return to their homes.

This holiday, I give thanks that my town escaped the worst of the hurricane damage. I am thankful to all the people who gave (and continue to give) their time to help the people and animals hurt by the storm. I am also thankful to Tri-State for giving me the opportunity to be a part of the clean-up effort.

If you would like to help wildlife affected by Hurricane Sandy, please consider making a donation to Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research Inc. For more information about Tri-State, oiled wildlife, and what to do if you find at oiled animal, please visit Tri-State’s website.

-Natasha Lewandrowski

Birding in the Atchafalaya Basin

Norbert and his lucky crew of six, about to set off on our boat tour.

The National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA) 2012 Symposium was every bit as gratifying as I had hoped. The first day, Tuesday, was a long one however. I had to leave my house at 4:30 am to catch a 7 am flight to Baton Rouge, LA via Charlotte, NC. My friend and fellow rehabber, Roxy Brandenburg, was on the same flight, and we were both excited to be arriving in time for a tour of Cypress Island Swamp. The Nature Conservancy manages Cypress Island Preserve; 9500 acres of cypress and tupelo trees dripping with Spanish moss, and bottomland hardwood forests at Lake Martin. The preserve is part of the Atchafalaya Basin; America’s largest river basin swamp.

You could mistake this alligator for just another hummock in the swamp. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Cypress and Tupelo trees draped in Spanish Moss and their beautiful shimmering reflection in the swamp water. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Atchafalaya Basin branches off the Mississippi River and extends 135 miles to Atchafalaya Bay, where it eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico. You may remember hearing about it last spring, when the Mississippi River was flooding its banks and there was talk of opening up the floodgates into Atchafalaya Basin to save many homes and towns from the floodwaters. The growing delta of the Atchafalaya River is the destination of thousands of water birds that migrate along the Mississippi Flyway. More than 300 species overwinter in the diverse habitats it offers, and hundreds more use these habitats to sustain them on their migration to points further south in Mexico and South America. For more information about this incredibly important wetland check out this website:

Roxy and I arrived in Baton Rouge in time to dump our bags at the hotel and grab a quick lunch (our first taste of the incredible Cajun cuisine that was to be another highlight of the NWRA Symposium) before catching the tour shuttle. Unfortunately the early morning flight caught up with me. I fell asleep on the bus and missed most of the scenery en route to the swamp. I awoke as we passed through a quaint little town called Breaux Bridge, which proclaims itself the “Crawfish Capitol of the World,” and is full of history and local culture including antique shops, beautiful architecture, restaurants, and live music. I wish I could have stayed and visited, but from there it was a only a short drive to the Cyprus Island Swamp.

Our first stop was The Nature Conservancy’s Cypress Island Visitor’s Center, where we disembarked for a quick bathroom break. Most of us, eager to go back to where we had just passed hundreds of Great Egrets in the trees and on nests, got right back on the bus to proceed, but I later learned that one person was rewarded for her dallying. She walked down to the water’s edge where she disturbed a black snake napping on the shore. When she got out her camera to take a picture, the snake opened its jaws to reveal an enormous “cotton” mouth. She had inadvertently disturbed a Water Moccasin, and had snapped a great photo of its signature mouth!

A Great Egret in hunting mode. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Back at the rookery, a Audubon Society volunteer had kindly set up about 8 spotting scopes in a row, each one focused on a fascinating sight in the swamp, including an Alligator, a Snapping Turtle, a Brown Water Snake in shed, a Great Egret displaying his incredible plumage to the females, a Little Blue Heron, a Roseate Spoonbill, an Anhinga, and a Crested Cormorant. The birds he had focused on were among hundreds that had already arrived and begun the ritual of courtship and nesting. He told us that, in the next month, these hundreds will become thousands, and more species, including Cattle and Snowy Egrets, White Ibis, Little Green and Great Blue Herons, and Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons will arrive, and the young will be hatching and visible in the nests. What a sight that will be!

A Great Egret in breeding plumage, getting set to display. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

A Little Blue Heron flew into a tree when we passed him in the boat. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Roseate Spoonbill in flight over the swamp rookery. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Anhinga in flight. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

A Crested Cormorant. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

From there we drove a short piece down the road to the docks and broke into smaller groups for our boat tour. I managed to place myself in the smallest boat, a group of six, and we followed Norbert, our 76 year-old native “swamper” guide, to board. My pictures tell the rest of the story. We saw many of the above-named birds in hunting mode, and alligators and turtles galore. The sun had just emerged following a day of record rains (up to 15 inches!) and the reptiles were out basking. The alligators ranged in size from about 8 feet to 14 feet, and Norbert explained that the age difference was roughly 100 years! An 8-footer being 50 years old, while a 14-footer is 150.

A fourteen and a half footer, about 150 years old, probably the oldest alligator we saw. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

A lazy alligator (about 8 feet long and 50 years old), wondering if we dare disturb his rest. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

One of the oldest of the alligators we saw, showing his age by the "double chin", and the classic "crocodile smile." Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Turtles galore, covered in algae, out basking in the sun after a day of record rainfall. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Midway through the tour, Norbert parked the boat in some floating water hyacinth (an extremely invasive non-native plant that requires intense management to keep waterways open), and showed us the minute flowers of Spanish Moss, and how they pollinate by wind. In our nearby surroundings, we saw a 6-foot alligator, a “chameleon” Green Anole Lizard change color, and another Brown Water Snake.

A Green Anole Lizard turned brown in perfect camouflage against the bark of the Cypress. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Norbert then got out some tattered clippings of a National Geographic article that showed him as a younger man in the swamp. He had grown up in the swamp, and raised his own kids on a diet of wild swamp critters, including alligators, turtles, beaver, and raccoon.  Last but not least, Norbert pulled out a jug of his very own Moonshine, and poured each of us a shot! It was surprisingly good!

Norbert, our tour guide, showing us that it was an appropriate time (somewhere) for him to share a taste of his very own moonshine! Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Finally, Norbert took us to where a few spectacular trees, less desirable as timber due to their prolific branches, grew to the ripe old age of 1500 years!  He explained that Cypress is extremely slow growing due to its wet growing conditions, so while these trees have an enormous girth of 10+ feet, they are deceptively old for their size. We also saw the Cypress “knees”, an emergent part of the roots that allow the trees to breathe air, and Norbert explained how the knees are desirable for creating elaborate carvings, and so most had been cut. Somehow the trees had managed to live on. That concluded our wonderful boat tour, and we returned to the docks to board our bus for the ride back to the hotel.

An ancient Cypress tree, roughly 1500 years. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

Cypress knees, emergent roots that allow the trees to breathe in an aquatic environment, prized by woodcarvers. Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

One of our tour guide, Norbert's, favorite old Cypress trees, because "it looks like it is smiling." Photograph by Suzanne Shoemaker.

The next day, Wednesday, the NWRA Symposium kicked off with an awesome keynote speech and slide presentation given by C.C. Lockwood, a free-lance photographer who spent the better part of the last thirty years living in the Atchafalaya Basin and photographing its unique flora and fauna. He has written several incredible books and produced an award-winning film on the Basin, published by National Geographic.  It turns out that it was C.C. Lockwood who had photographed Norbert as a young man, in the old tattered National Geographic clippings he so proudly shared with us. C.C. Lockwood’s latest honor is that one of his photographs; of Cypress trees set against a beautiful sky reflected in the water, was selected for the US Postage Stamp celebrating the 200th Anniversary of Louisiana Statehood.  It will soon be available at your local post office.

These were two highlights of the Symposium for me, but it was only the beginning of a week of superb presentations and informative discussion about a wide range of important topics relating to wildlife rehabilitation ranging from Care of Opossum Neonates and Rehabilitating Sea Turtles to acquiring fish and insects for feeding wildlife, and Getting the Most out of Eagle Scout Projects. Some of my favorite presentations were Physical Therapy in Aquatic Birds (easily translated for use in raptors), Treatment of Lead Intoxication in Bald Eagles (over 85% of all the Bald Eagle patients received at The University of Minnesota Raptor Center have at least some lead in their blood, and most have clinical signs of lead poisoning), Strigiformes – Why Owls Aren’t Just Raptors by Another Name, Infectious Diseases of Raptors, Reuniting and Fostering Raptors, Triaging Injured Wildlife, and Beyond the Individual – Rehabilitation of Species, a thought-provoking presentation and discussion about the difficult choices required to save a species.

I’m sure that, as 2012 unfolds, you will hear more about my experiences and education at the 2012 NWRA Symposium. Meanwhile, I have returned to Maryland and Owl Moon where I am enthused and invigorated to get back to the work of rehabilitating raptors!

-Suzanne Shoemaker