2010 March 5, Monday
Mobile Bay, Alabama

Last week, we heard from local fishermen near Mobile, Alabama about some very peculiar and unusual behavior by pelicans and other seabirds. They said that while the birds always like to follow their shrimp boats, lately the birds have become very aggressive and are literally storming the boats, the nets, and the decks, in their frantic efforts to eat the fish.  We were told that "the birds are behaving as if they are starving and desperate for food, to the point that they seem to have little regard for danger to their own lives.  They divebomb us, our work tables, the boat, the nets, everything."  We also spoke with folks who run a seabird rescue center near Mobile, and they said that they've been receiving an enormous number of adolescent pelicans who are almost starved. Apparently they are unable to catch enough fish for themselves, although other than being undernourished they seem healthy enough. We contacted a few journalists and invited them to join us out on the water with some of these fishermen to witness this for ourselves.  We were treated to a very interesting day on the water with Captains Michael Paul Williams, Pete Zirlott, and Sidney Schwartz, coordinated by our friend Zack Carter.

We did indeed see this behavior by the pelicans, gulls, and loons, although the captains told us that the birds were "better behaved" today -- perhaps because there were so many people on the boat all pointing cameras at them?  These captains are third and fourth-generation fishermen here, and they all say they have never seen behavior like this. It is not unusual for fishing to be sparse in the winter, but the birds have never acted this desperate nor been this aggressive in trying to take fish from the boats.  Another peculiar feature of today's boat trip was that we saw not a single dolphin. The fishermen were very surprised at this, as the norm for them is to have dolphins all around and crossing their track frequently.  

NOTE:  Unless noted, no photos or video provided by On Wings Of Care are "photoshopped" or otherwise altered in any way that could degrade accurate interpretation of what we observed.  

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(Photos above courtesy of Terese Collins and Gulf Islands Conservancy)

Finally, we asked the fishermen about the light bands of sheen we saw in several places... yes, they told us that there was oil all over this bay.  "Really oil?  Not just boat diesel, or fish oil and organic matter?" we asked.  They assured us that it was oil which was coming in from the Gulf, and that they have been seeing it since the summer of 2010 and still see it.  The captain sprinkled just a few drops of Dawn dishwashing detergent off the side of the boat into the sheen, and immediately what had been a silvery smooth band turned into thin splotches on the surface -- just what happens to oil when 'dispersed' with a detergent.  When those bands coincided with some other areas of organic matter, which we think were coming from vegetation, it made for some bizarre sites indeed.  (See photos below.) 

We are offering this article, photos, and videos with the hope of learning from experts just what might be going on with these seabirds.  Is there a paucity of fish for these birds, and if so is this yet another fallout of the BP oil disaster of 2010 and the pollution sustained by the Gulf of Mexico? How can we know that for sure?  And what can we do about it?

Here are some videos taken by your On Wings Of Care pilot Bonny (who really doesn't know how to drive a camera or videocam). The first set of photos are stills taken from those videos. For some additional wonderful photos see this link provided by Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network.  The remainder of the photos below were taken by Terese Collins of the Gulf Island Conservancy in Mississippi.  Included in these are photos of some of the people who made this trip happen.

The following photos were taken by Terese Collins of the Gulf Island Conservancy: