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A Day in the Life of a Bird Rescue Team

Jeffrey Emerson squats on a boat over a Wildlife Operations notebook with a pen in one hand and a cellphone in the other

Jeffrey Emerson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, takes a call from the Oiled Wildlife Hotline about a possible distressed pelican. Photo: Phil Kloer, USFWS.

Three men stand on a beach wearing lifevests and searching for something

(L-R) Jeffrey Emerson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Benji Anderson, Georgia Forestry Commission; and Josh Crowley, Mississippi Forestry Commission, search for oiled birds on a rescue and reconnaisance mission. Photo: Phil Kloer, USFWS.

Dauphin Island, Ala. -The call came in to Jeffrey Emerson’s cell phone from a Wildlife Operations dispatcher. A pelican had been spotted, apparently distressed, possibly oiled. Emerson and his crew needed to find the bird, evaluate it, rescue it if needed.

The only location they had for the pelican, however, was a street address. The woman who had called the Oiled Wildlife Hotline owned a house that backed up to a little man-made bay in Little Pelican Bay off the coast of Alabama, and the pelican was perched on a pole she could see from her deck.

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Emerson, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee who usually works as a firefighter at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota, relayed all this to the boat’s captain, Jerry  McCullough, and told him the dispatcher was feeding the street address into Google Earth to get GPS coordinates for the pelican. But McCullough, a veteran of the local waters who had been hired by BP to transport the rescue team, said he could figure out from the street address where to head.

So off they went. McCullough the boat captain, Emerson the rescue team leader, along with Josh Crowley, a ranger with the Mississippi Forestry Commission, and Benji Anderson, a ranger with the Georgia Forestry Commission, on a more-or-less typical day as a Wildlife Operations reconnaissance and rescue team.

“Oh, and they say to be careful with this one,” Emerson told his partners. “She may be hostile.”

The pelican may be hostile? No, the caller.

She had first called the Oiled Wildlife Hotline early in the morning, and it was now early afternoon, and no one had shown up to rescue the bird yet, and she had called back, upset. What she wasn’t factoring in, though, was that the Dauphin Island area had been swept by wave after wave of thunderstorms with jagged bolts of lightning for the past four hours, and McCullough had decided it was too risky to take the boat out. So the rescue team waited, bored and restless, for the weather to clear so they could go out.

“You never know what you’re going to get when you answer these calls,” Emerson said. “It might not even be a pelican. A few days ago we had a call about an albatross, and it turned out to be a gannet. You have to answer every call, because you don’t know until you get there. But it’s a crap shoot every time.”

They found the woman on her deck, and the pelican on its pole. McCullough cut the twin engines on his 27-foot boat, and it drifted slowly toward the bird. Emerson, Crowley and Anderson studied the bird with binoculars, looking for oil or injury.

As the boat drifted closer, the pelican suddenly gave a mighty flap of his wings, taking off and soaring over the water, clearly healthy with no visible signs of oil.  The team speculated the bird may have had a large meal and was digesting it. The woman on the dock waved and shouted her thanks to the team. McCullough started the engines and they headed out toward the Gulf.

More than 300 workers leave daily on reconnaissance and rescue patrols from docks and ports along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida as part of the response to the BP oil spill. They may be looking for the spread of oil or collecting dead birds, but the goal for many of them is to rescue living oiled birds and bring them in to be cleaned, healed, and released in a safe place.

Most teams, however, return empty-handed. Emerson’s team had rescued six oiled birds in 23 days of patrols, and picked up four dead ones. And back at the Wildlife Operations Center in Daphne, Ala., where they start every morning, they are considered a team with one of the best rescue records.

One problem, Emerson explained, is that some birds can be oiled and still be able to elude capture. The bird’s instinct is to fly away from approaching people, and if it has only picked up light amounts of oil and can still fly, it will be impossible to capture. Sometimes they have injuries such as fractures that have occurred naturally, but are not a result of the oil spill. Those birds are taken to the bird rehabilitation centers anyway.

With no new calls from the Oiled Wildlife Hotline, the crew checked out several islands that might have oiled birds. They saw a few through binoculars with light oiling, but as they approached stealthily on foot, the birds flushed and flew off.

Finally it was time to go back to the marina at Dauphin Island, but Emerson suggested they stop on the way at a spot in the marina where they had previously seen, and tried unsuccessfully to capture, a little merganser that was acting oddly. As McCullough cut the engines again, they spotted the duck on a sandbar in the marina. Emerson and Crowley grabbed their nets and jumped into the waist-deep water a few yards away. The merganser saw them coming, but turned out to have a fractured wing, as well as some light oiling on his breast. He flapped frantically, but Emerson nabbed him with a net, and they gently transferred him into a transport case.

Back at the dock, the team loaded the case into their van and drove to one of the Incident Command’s Bird Rehabilitation Facilities in Theodore, Ala., where they handed the duck over to a worker for Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, the company which is contracted by BP to rehabilitate wildlife from the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill.

The merganser rescue had added at least two hours to their working day, and it was almost dusk as they headed back to the Wildlife Operations Center in Daphne. But they were pumped and happy. “This is what we are out there to do, is rescue these birds,” said Emerson. “So a day when we have a rescue is always better than a day when we don’t.”

Watch the rescue of the merganser on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PYFuIdLynQ

Last updated: October 15, 2010