Galveston Texas oiled bird - Surbound
Brown Pelican covered in oil.

The nearly 170,000 gallons of oil that has spilled into Texas’ Galveston Bay has put one of the nation’s most crucial bird habitats at risk, experts say.

Biologists said they have found dozens of oiled birds on parts of the Bolivar Peninsula.

“We expect this to get much worse,” Jessica Jubin, a spokeswoman for the Houston Audubon Society, which manages the Bolivar Flats preserve where the birds were found.

Environmental groups said the spill occurred at an especially sensitive time and place. The channel in Texas City, about 45 miles southeast of Houston, has shorebird habitat on both sides, and tens of thousands of wintering birds are still in the area.

At least 50 birds of six species have needed treatment due to the oil, said Richard Gibbons, conservation director of the Houston Audubon Society.

Crews have being working around the clock to contain the spill, but traces of oil have still been detected as far out as 12 miles in the Gulf of Mexico.

The timing couldn’t be worse: Spring migration is in full swing right now at nearby Bolivar Flats, a Globally Important Bird Area and Houston Audubon Society-managed sanctuary. Oiled American White Pelicans and Sanderlings are already appearing in the sanctuary, according to Houston Audubon’s Conservation Director Richard Gibbons.

Galveston Bay and approximate location of the oil spill incident.

The potential for harm is staggering; Bolivar Flats hosts important congregations of Piping, Snowy and Wilson’s plovers and other birds, including American Oystercatcher, Red Knot and Brown Pelican, every migration season. And birds that feed in the open water, where most of the oil seems to be right now, are at high risk. These include American White Pelicans, Brown Pelicans, loons, grebes, gannets, some ducks and many terns and gulls. And if the spill is not contained, the greater Galveston Bay could be in jeopardy. The bay is a major feeding and stopover area for waterbirds–if oil makes incursions into the marshes behind the jetties and beaches, ibises, spoonbills, herons and egrets, rails, bitterns, Seaside and Nelson’s Sparrows, and others would also be at risk.

Audubon Texas staff have been working with Houston Audubon, USFWS, and other partners in the area to organize volunteer response efforts for habitat clean-up and addressing oiled wildlife.  Additionally, Audubon is in contact with regulatory agencies regarding expectations for clean-up and overall response effectiveness.