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An oyster catcher being tagged on Cape Cod. Photo: Shiloh Schulte.
An oyster catcher being tagged on Cape Cod. Photo: Shiloh Schulte.

Gulf oil spill threatens migrating northern shorebirds

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Shorebirds who spend their summers along the coasts of Maine, Massachusetts and New York are safe, for now, from the effects of the massive BP oil spill that's fouling the waters and coastline of the Gulf of Mexico. But many of them will soon migrate south for the winter, many right to areas in the path of the spreading oil. Northeast biologists are trying to get a head start on tracking their progress. They're especially concerned about protected birds like the oyster catcher. Maine Public Radio's Susan Sharon reports.

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Shorebird recovery Project map shows sites and species affected by the oil spill so far. Photo: Manoment Center for Conservation Sciences.

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On a sparkling blue morning in some rocks along the Stony Point Dyke in Cape Cod Canal, a pair of adult oyster catchers are caring for a young chick. Like nervous new parents, they take turns flying off in search of food and bringing it back. Watching through binoculars about 30 yards away are Shiloh Schulte from the Massachusetts-based Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences and Katie Farg from City University of New York, who've set a trap for the bird.     

"Here they're walking towards the decoy now which is exactly what we want them to do. They should go across our trap and at least one of them should get caught," Schulte explains.

The decoy looks exactly like an American oyster catcher--yellow, red-rimmed eyes, white belly, black cape, brown back, and a long, bright reddish orange beak. A knife-like beak, which makes it easier to pluck the meat out of oysters and clams.

The decoy is placed on a camouflaged carpet of fishing line nooses next to a portable tape machine playing a recording of an alarmed oyster catcher. Schulte says that oyster catchers are smart, territorial, and will often charge the perceived invader, aggressively stomping their feed and bobbing their heads to protect their turf.

"What we're trying to do today is catch an oyster catcher or two and put bands on them," Schulte says. "These birds can live 20 to 40 years. So we can actually track survival rates from year to year, we can track migration, and this really aids the ultimate goal, which is conservation of the species."

Schulte says there are only 10,000 of the birds in the United States. Around the northeast, somee of the largest populations are found in Massachusetts and New York. Many of these birds will spend their winters in the gulf in an area north of TampaBay. And because they return to the same spot every year, Schulte expects to lose at least 20% of the oyster catchers to the gulf oil spill.

Meredith Gutowski is a conservation specialist with the Shore Bird Recovery Project at Manomet where she focuses not just on the oyster catcher but on other shore birds. She says about 40 species pass through the gulf region. About half are considered a high priority for protection because of threats from habitat degeneration, development, and climate change.

"We have a species-specific action plan," Meredith explains. "It lists the primary threats to that species and it also lists where the most important sights are for that species."

Using a voluntary network of federal and state agencies, private land owners and others in the field, the sites are ranked by population. The more birds that congregate, the more important the site. Along the Texas gulf coast there are 5 with an international designation. That means they support populations of at least 100,000 birds each. Information about where and when the birds go has been uploaded to a GoogleEarth map of the gulf coast. Here, the same voluntary network on the ground can plan for what's ahead.

Gotowski clicks through the map, identifying migration routes and nesting points. She says that birds with long beaks that eat shellfish, such as the oystercatcher, or birds that dig deep into the sand will be contaminated by the oil spill long after the well is finally capped. That gives those on the ground a short window to put booms in place and undertake cleanups of beaches and protection of habitat that have not yet been affected by the oil spill.

Meanwhile back on Stony Point Dyke, an oyster catcher has been caught in the trap and is being banded, measured, and weighed. Shiloh Schulte looks the bird over as he completes the measurements and attaches the band. He bestows the oyster catcher with an appropriate nickname. "It felt skinny in the hand and it's 510 grams so it's a very skinny bird. Mr. Skinny, that's it, that's what he'll be from now on," he remarks.

With any luck, Schulte says that Mr. Skinny will avoid the oil-soaked gulf and come back to the same beach on Cape Cod to nest for the next 20 years.   

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