Oil's effects on shorebirds "could have been worse'

·7 min read

Sep. 18—Way before ocean-borne freighters a city block long became familiar with the local waters, an entirely different kind of world traveler had instinctively frequented these shores for eons.

Birds by the tens of thousands, representing a profusion of unique and intriguing waterfowl, continue to make themselves at home in the Golden Isles throughout the four seasons. It has been so for millennia, including the scant measure of time in which merchant ships have plied these waters.

Brunswick's natural deep water port has been a shipping destination for only a few centuries, and the humongous floating parking garages known as Ro Ro vessels have only been calling on Colonel's Island in large numbers for a few decades. In that time, however, the shipping of vehicles worldwide has made Brunswick a national leader in the roll-on, roll-off industry with a port having the capacity to move hundreds of thousands of vehicles annually.

But the cycles of nature that dictate the shorebirds' movements and the tight schedules of commerce that churn the burgeoning local shipping industry have all but ignored each other for the most part.

Then came Sept. 8, 2019. Everything changed when the 656-foot-long Ro/Ro ship Golden Ray capsized in the St. Simons Sound with a cargo of 4,161 vehicles and an estimated 380,000 gallons of bunker oil in its fuel tanks.

Oil leaks from the shipwreck have repeatedly fouled marsh habitat and beaches in the nearly two years since the shipwreck.

By most accounts of the wildlife experts who are keeping track of it, oil from the Golden Ray has tarnished the feathers of hundreds of shorebirds hereabouts, maybe more. Fortunately, the actual damage has been minimal. At least on paper.

Since September 2019, some 29 dead birds with oiled carcasses have been found in habitat surrounding the shipwreck, according to Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, a Delaware group contracted by organizers of the cleanup operation. In that time, 18 oiled shorebirds have been captured, treated and released back into the wild. Ten oiled birds were euthanized, records show.

Most of the figures were generated after a massive midsummer discharge from the Golden Ray into the St. Simons Sound, when oil flowing from a separated section of the shipwreck washed up on marsh habitat and beaches on St. Simons Island's south end.

But the figures do not tell the complete story, said Tim Keyes. Keyes is a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources who specializes in shorebirds. Few people know the local shorebirds better than Keyes.

Taking everything in consideration, from migratory patterns to natural instincts and nesting habits, the impact on shorebirds is greater than the numbers indicate, Keyes said.

"There certainly were impacts," Keyes said. "We can't quantify some of this, but it would be hard to imagine there were not larger impacts."

The story not told by the figures comes from the hundreds of oiled birds that were spotted but left alone, Keyes said. The biologists attached to the overall salvage operation and folks like Keyes all have taken a do-no-harm approach to the oiled birds. If a bird was spotted with oil on it but not otherwise disabled, it was left alone. The theory behind this is that the efforts to capture the bird could cause more harm than the actual oil.

Keyes cannot help but wonder about the longterm effects of oil on some of those birds.

For instance, red knots, semipalmated plover and other species stop here to fatten up for grueling flights to distant migratory grounds, in some cases all the way to the southern tip of South America. Birds who left here with oiled wings were surely handicapped on such epic migrations, he said.

"Oil on the wings can incapacitate their ability to migrate for long distances," Keyes said. "And in some cases, they're flying nonstop for three or four days. It's hard to imagine there were no impacts on those birds."

Regardless of their destination, birds are fussy groomers.

"Then you have the toxins...ingested when a bird preens those oiled feathers," Keyes said. "That's something we weren't documenting. We don't have a concrete handle on that."

Make no mistake, Keyes said, this is a Bird City. Local marshes are among 80,000 acres on the Georgia Coast that are designated a Landscape of Hemispheric Importance by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, a conservation group dedicated to conserving shorebird habitat worldwide. Thousands upon thousands of shorebirds light here throughout the year, from marathon migrators like the red knot to those shy local squawkers known as marsh hens.

Royal terns, Wilson's plovers and other species nest here by the thousands. The tolerable climes of Glynn County make this area a favored wintering spot.

"The populations peak in the spring and fall migrations, but we also host between 60,000 and 100,000 shorebirds every winter," Keyes said.

Since the capsizing of the Golden Ray, DNR biologists have documented hundreds of cases of oiled birds that did not warrant human intervention, he said.

A couple of weeks after the shipwreck, oil gushed from vents in the hulls of the half-submerged shipwreck, fouling some 25 miles of shoreline, including a densely-oiled stretch of the Brunswick River.

"We documented several hundred lightly to moderately oiled shorebirds in over 20 species," Keyes said. "None of them were incapacitated to the point where we could capture them. One of the frustrating parts is we will never know the true impact on those birds."

Several lesser discharges have occurred since efforts began in November to cut the shipwreck into eight gigantic sections for removal, including an incident in May that prompted the Glynn County Health Department to issue an oil pollution warning for area beaches over the Memorial Day weekend. The worst of these spills came in late July, when a dark cloud of oil from a completed cut fouled habitat and beaches on Simons Island's southern tip.

Oil also reached a small stretch of shoreline on nearby Bird Island, where royal tern nesting was wrapping up. Keyes worked with Tri-State biologists to capture 20 oiled royal tern chicks that had not yet mastered flight. Ten of those were rehabilitated and released to the wild. Ten had to be euthanized.

DNR biologist Fletcher Smith detected hundreds of oiled birds in that tern colony of more than 8,000 on Bird Island, Keyes said. The estimates are calculated by taking photos that capture segments of nesting areas, then counting up the birds in each panel to get a total.

"We estimated between 10 and 20 percent had light to moderate oiling," Keyes said. "It was mostly smudges and speckles and my gut instinct is that most of those birds are likely fine. But it's hard to know."

And then there are the local clapper rails, those seldom seen full-time denizens of the local salt marsh spartina grasses that most know as marsh hens.

"This almost certainly had an impact on the clapper rails, the marsh hens," Keyes said. "Those guys are all around our marsh. Again, we didn't confirm any clapper rail impact. But it would be hard to imagine there wasn't any."

The last of the cutting operations on the Golden Ray shipwreck concluded earlier this month. All that remains of the salvage operation is to remove the last two sections from the sound.

There have been no signs of another significant oil release.

All in all, Keyes said, the Golden Isles' bird population has been fortunate. And lucky.

It could have been disastrous if the major spills in October 2019 had occurred at another time, such as the height of nesting season, he noted. And oil from the big discharge in late July affected a small stretch of shoreline on Bird Island where most of the chicks had fledged. Farther down "it would have been hundreds of oiled chicks instead of something like 30 of them," Keyes said.

Keyes said he enjoyed a good rapport with the Delaware-based Tri-State biologists. He said the supervisors of the cleanup have been willing to listen and follow advice from biologists on matters of protecting the environment.

"Every drop of oil is bad, but it could have been far worse," Keyes said. "The Tri-State people have been very responsive. It's been frustrating to see major new spills this late in the game, but I understand the challenges. This is the first, and hopefully the last time we have a situation like this."

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