Calling All Birders
Professor emerita and former student assist oil-stricken Gulf Coast wildlife
by Michelle Simmons
October 1, 2010
During a bird survey on Grand Isle in June, Erik Johnson ’01 encountered this oil-stained snowy egret. He is using images like this one in a training program for volunteer citizen scientists monitoring the extent of damage to wildlife by the BP oil spill.
In those early, frantic days of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Louisiana was fielding a barrage of calls and e-mails from people throughout the country offering assistance.
“Basically everybody was scrambling to do something,” recalls Erik Johnson ’01, a Ph.D. candidate and ornithologist at Louisiana State University (LSU). “There was a huge volunteer interest. People wanted to come down and clean the birds and do all sorts of stuff.”
There were more volunteers than the agency could handle. So the Baton Rouge chapter of the Audubon Society stepped in to help channel all that energy toward something that would be not only useful but have a long-term impact.
Enter Johnson and his lab mate, Jared Wolfe, from LSU’s School of Renewable Natural Resources, who offered their expertise to the Audubon Society to help gauge the extent of the damage.
“Images that people see of oil in the marsh and completely oil-covered birds are a skewed perspective of what’s happening,” Johnson explains. “Most of the oiled birds that we see aren’t coated in oil. They have little spots of oil here and there on their plumage. These birds are completely mobile, functioning fairly normally as far as we can tell.”
Still, even a spot of the toxic substance anywhere on the body can seriously sicken the bird when it tries to preen the oil out of its plumage and ingests it.
“There are all kinds of consequences—there’s cancer, there are respiratory problems, there’s a whole litany of problems,” he says. “The majority of birds are going to be in that category. It’s going to be much more long term.”
In addition to helping recruit amateur birdwatchers and other volunteers, Johnson and Wolfe co-wrote “A Citizen Scientist’s Protocol for Monitoring Oiled Birds in Louisiana” to use as a training and data-collection tool. The manual standardizes the observation and reporting process and provides specific guidelines for recording the amount and location of oil on birds—from trace amounts to heavy coating. Johnson, a veteran wildlife photographer, used his photos as visual aids.
The Baton Rouge program was so successful that when the Audubon Society created a national Volunteer Response Center in Mississippi in June to coordinate all Gulf Coast efforts, it adopted Johnson’s and Wolfe’s protocol for training new volunteers for its Citizen Science Monitoring program. The first month more than 13,000 people signed on.
One of those volunteers is Janet Wright. The professor emerita of biology has lived in Mississippi since retiring in 2008 and was pleasantly surprised to see Johnson’s photos during her training session. The former biology and environmental-science double major had been one of her field assistants for an Allegheny wood-rat study she was conducting, and she fondly remembered his adventurous spirit and facility with a camera.
In August, Johnson took a break from the Audubon project to do some field research in Brazil, where he’s studying the effects of deforestation and habitat destruction on Amazonian birds. He plans to defend his dissertation in the spring.
Meanwhile, “I’m just trying to keep people motivated,” Johnson says. “The surveys will continue for months, and possibly years, to come.”
Wright says that the program that Johnson helped develop is similar to Dickinson’s ALLARM (Alliance for Aquatic Resources Monitoring), which she calls “one of the pioneers of citizen science.” Founded 25 years ago, ALLARM provides training and education to local environmental groups that monitor water quality throughout Pennsylvania.
“The whole idea of citizen science takes a lot of thought,” she says. “Most people don’t have a science background. They may be able to identify [birds], but they have to understand why it’s important to report data in a standard form that you can interpret from month to month. You can’t just report the most outstanding things or your personal thoughts about it. It has to be standardized, something that can be turned into numbers.”
Wright is part of a six-person team covering a one-mile stretch of coast near her home. Her group is one of hundreds of similar teams that go out every few weeks with binoculars, a camera and GPS device to gather data, which is then logged into eBird, a centralized online database hosted by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. The citizen-scientist volunteers do not actually handle the birds; if they see heavily oiled wildlife, they call an animal-distress hotline that coordinates qualified cleanup teams.
The task is enormous, as the Gulf Coast is home not only to the brown pelican and other native species but to millions of migratory sea birds. “We’re an overwintering site for a lot of coastal birds that nest in the Arctic,” says Wright. “They come down here for the winter, so we get a whole different set of shore birds, terns and gulls in the winter than we do in the summer. It’s a pretty complicated, subtle situation.”
View Erik Johnson’s photos of Gulf Coast wildlife, or for more on Gulf Coast bird-monitoring efforts, visit www.audubon.org.