Louisiana is moving toward restoration of an island so low that high tides often drown the eggs and chicks of the pelicans and other birds that nest there.
Louisiana's westernmost nesting site for colonial seabirds and wading birds isn't a barrier island. Rather, it sits in a cove of Calcasieu Lake. It wasn't affected by the spill, but is "the poster child for nest inundation," said Jon J. Wiebe, project manager for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
BP oil spill money is paying for the $27 million project, which is more than double the size of the recently completed restoration of Queen Bess Island. Pelicans and other birds already have built about 5,000 nests at Queen Bess, with the height of nesting season still to come — an encouraging success, said biologist Todd Baker of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Federal scientists estimated that the spill killed up to 102,000 birds gulf-wide, though later studies put the figure much higher. Anywhere from 12,700 to 27,600 pelicans were killed, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates.
Unlike longer-lived corals and dolphins, pelicans have recovered well. "Pelican numbers are strong," said Paul Leberg, a scientist at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. "The big concern is the number of nesting islands has been greatly reduced since the spill," he said.
There were 22 colonies of pelicans, gulls and other seabirds and wading birds in Louisiana in 2010; now there are 10, said Todd Baker, a Wildlife and Fisheries biologist.
"BP oil led to rapid acceleration of wetland loss which contributed to the loss of several colonies in coastal LA over time," Baker wrote in an email. "The colonies that these birds use are small and very remote and generally in the bullseye of erosion, BP oil amplified that condition."
All remaining nesting islands except Queen Bess and Raccoon Island, which was restored earlier, are "on the brink of collapse," Chuck Perrodin, spokesman for Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said in an email.
During the spill, nonprofit organizations and volunteers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida cleaned birds rescued from the spill and were able to release more than 1,200 back to the wild. Those cleaned in Louisiana were taken to several places in Louisiana and in Texas, Florida and Georgia, Baker said.
He said about 180 pelicans, 140 laughing gulls and a handful of other birds were brought to Rabbit Island.
The restoration project there will create more than 80 acres (32 hectares) of land and six (2.4 ) of marsh, bringing the island virtually to the size it was 65 years ago.
Like the work completed in February at Queen Bess Island, most will be done between nesting seasons, Wiebe said. However, it won't be possible to finish it all, so contractors will screen off the area closest to the current nesting area, he said.
Louisiana's $5 billion in natural resource damage money from BP's environmental settlement includes about $220 million specifically for bird restoration projects.
The birds at Queen Bess have reinforced the decision to plant shrubs over several years at islands restored for nesting birds. More than 24,000 3-foot (1 meter) stalks of marsh elder (Iva frutescens), matrimony vine and groundsel bushes were planted at Grand Isle. Pelicans have knocked over some and ripped up others to use in their nests, Wiebe said.
In trail camera photos, he said, "you'll see a pelican strolling by with this big gigantic Iva in its beak making its way for a nest."