Delaware group played key role in rescuing birds from BP spill

A red-tailed hawk peers out of a protective towel as Lindsay Sjolin (left) and Erica Miller work on the bird at Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Newark, Del. The nonprofit aided in rescuing birds from the BP oil spill.
A red-tailed hawk peers out of a protective towel as Lindsay Sjolin (left) and Erica Miller work on the bird at Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Newark, Del. The nonprofit aided in rescuing birds from the BP oil spill.
Posted: April 20, 2011

For weeks stretching into months, the images were inescapable: Brown billows erupting from the ocean floor, pristine beaches mined with balls of goo, toxic tides advancing on fragile wetlands.

The hellish spectacle began the night of April 20, 2010, with the explosion of the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 platform workers and setting off an 86-day engineering race to stanch the largest oil spill in American history.

The indelible face of the disaster did not belong to man, however, but to bird, shrouded in heavy crude.

Updated tallies of dead and rescued fowl have been released periodically in the last year, although the true toll is likely many times higher. As recently as this week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported collecting 9,193 birds along 980 miles of coastline in four states. Of those, 3,046 were alive when taken. And of those, 1,252 survived to be rehabilitated and freed.

That the number of releases has been even that high is a measure of the skill and the will of Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, a small nonprofit in Newark, Del., that for the last 35 years has given second chances to otherwise doomed wildlife.

Spills are not uncommon; Tri-State's director, veterinarian Heidi Stout, has worked at 150 in eight countries in little more than two decades. Yet, dealing with oiled birds remains a rare expertise.

The gulf job fell to just two groups, Tri-State and the California-based International Bird Rescue Research Center. The summons from oil giant BP came April 26. Within hours, Tri-State was in the air.

About 4.9 million barrels of oil escaped the well before it was capped July 15. For months afterward, the team of five staffers and 25 volunteers was still washing the delicate feathers of oil-cloaked brown pelicans, royal terns, northern gannets, loons, laughing gulls, and scores of other species.

At the height of the rescues in June, more than 80 birds were brought in daily to temporary stations in Gulfport, Miss.; Theodore, Ala.; Pensacola, Fla., and Fort Jackson, La. There, they were sudsed up in what Tri-State had discovered to be the magic degreaser, Dawn dish detergent - three 90-ounce bottles per heavily-coated pelican.

Though thick and gooey, the oil that spewed from the seabed was "good from a veterinary perspective," said Erica Miller, a Tri-State surgeon.

The birds were not suffering the internal damage, skin burns, respiratory distress, or neurological problems often seen at spills. But, she added, "I have no idea if there is any long-term effect."

Required by the 1990 Oil Pollution Act to fund the cleanup, BP has paid $632 million to date. An as-yet-undisclosed sum went to Tri-State, which closed up shop in the Gulf in November and turned over the cleaning of stragglers to local rehabilitators.

It left behind freezers full of dead birds - evidence for when the spill wends its way into the courts. Even so, the toll will likely become the subject of litigious debate.

So far, the numbers do not compare to the fatalities from the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989, when 257,000 barrels of crude leaked into Alaska's Prince William Sound. Tri-State did not work that spill, which affected 1,300 miles of largely inaccessible coastline teeming with seabirds. An estimated 250,000 perished.

But just because the current gulf figures are lower doesn't mean a catastrophe was not visited on the environment and its wildlife, from dolphins and turtles to terns, said Tom MacKenzie, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

For years going forward, scientists will have to survey animal populations and study nesting habitats to assess the spill's impact.

"That," MacKenzie said, "is the billion-dollar question."

Clinic opened

Tri-State was conceived in oil - 130,000 gallons of it.

In 1976, the Liberian tanker Olympic Games ran aground in the Delaware River near Marcus Hook. Oil coated the banks and marshes for miles. Thousands of animals died.

The sixth major spill in the Northeast in three years prompted environmentalist Lynne Frink to gather scientists to study their effects on wildlife and develop treatment protocols under the aegis of newly founded Tri-State.

The group opened a wild-bird clinic in New Jersey in 1982, and seven years later moved it to Delaware.

Now, on a $700,000 budget accrued from donations and grants, Tri-State annually tends to more than 3,000 sick, injured, or orphaned birds at its clinic alone.

Oil-spill response, though, remains its métier.

Since the gulf sojourn, Tri-State has been called to a spill in the Potomac River; treated oiled birds from an incident under the Delaware Memorial Bridge, and two mallard ducks that got into used motor oil in Lower Moreland Township, Montgomery County; and consulted on rescues in Virginia and on a remote South African island.

Miller, the bird surgeon, is a veteran of more than 100 spills in her 17 years with Tri-State. None compared to the Deepwater Horizon disaster - or, as she knew it, "MC252," the BP designation for Well 252 in the undersea Mississippi Canyon.

Miller spent most of her time at the busiest site, Fort Jackson, about 70 miles south of New Orleans.

The first oiled fowl, a northern gannet, was found in a slick in nearby Venice a full 10 days after the explosion.

The oil was drifting slowly toward land, west to east, affording the team time to set up cleaning facilities and deploy crew to the right places at the right times. Stout, the director, logged 35,000 miles traveling among the four stations in a rented Jeep Cherokee.

Cages had to be built, and hot water systems calibrated to ensure bath temperatures between 104 and 106 degrees. Any cooler and the stressed birds could go into shock.

Miller had gone to the gulf not knowing if she would be there "three months or three years," she said. It turned out to be five months, during which she shared a five-bedroom, three-bath fishing lodge with about 20 other workers. Not that she spent much time there.

Her days began at 6 a.m. and often lasted until midnight. In between, there was an unending parade of birds to be fed, examined, and weighed.

A bath alone typically took 300 gallons of water, four handlers, and 45 minutes, as the bird was moved through a series of tubs.

A former clinic supervisor for Tri-State and now a substitute high school science teacher, Rachel Coffey cleaned birds' eyes and mouths with saline solution, gauze, and cotton swabs, then rehydrated them with intravenous fluids - all the while dancing away from their kicking feet and stabbing beaks.

"It is very stressful for the birds," she said.

But so, too, for the humans.

Miller's toughest day: Euthanizing 12 baby pelicans.

Her best: "Any day a bird was released."

First real spill

A retired West Chester University music theory professor and Tri-State volunteer, Jim McVoy has cleaned cages and fed patients at the clinic for the last five years.

For nearly as long, he has been trained to wash oiled birds - having honed his skills on a Dumpster-diving osprey covered with cooking oil, and some "really soiled" pigeons from Philadelphia.

Deepwater Horizon was his first real spill.

Paid by BP, as were all volunteers, the Coatesville man helped set up a station in a Pensacola warehouse, built cages, and swept floors.

At one point, he was sent to find tongs long enough for volunteers to hand-feed birds without having their fingers snapped. He scoured every kitchen-supply store he could find, to no avail. Then he noticed a Chinese restaurant.

"I went in and got some chopsticks," said McVoy.

Within hours he was feeding little fish to his favorite, a young northern gannet.

He eventually was able to release the bird, which he drove to a Jacksonville beach. When he opened the cage, it took off like a shot.

For a heart-stopping moment, he watched it make a wrong turn inland - before circling back to the ocean.

"It was nice to know," McVoy said, "he had a chance to grow up."

Contact staff writer Mari A. Schaefer at 610-892-9149 or


comments powered by Disqus