Glimmers of Hope in the Bayou

American White Pelican
Bill Stripling

American White Pelican

Editor's note: Chris Canfield is Audubon's vice president for the Mississippi Flyway and Gulf Coast restoration.

by Chris Canfield

I was on the way to the airport recently here in Louisiana and while crossing a lake saw my first American White Pelican of the year. Later that day I landed in Minnesota for an Audubon chapter assembly. There I heard a presentation about efforts to monitor and protect the masses of white pelicans using pools along the Mississippi River to breed. It was a clear reminder of the connections birds provide our communities and the shared responsibilities we have to protect their homes all along their flyways.

This past week brought two additional reminders of the long-term efforts we must all commit to in order to fulfill those responsibilities.

The first came last Monday, when the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force - an official body created by President Obama - released its long-awaited ecosystem restoration strategy. Audubon biologists and public policy experts contributed to the development of this important and precedent-setting strategy, which sets forth goals and principles for restoring Gulf of Mexico ecosystems.

Secondly, a committee in the House of Representatives held a hearing on a crucial and commonsense bill that would make sure fines and penalties paid by BP and others responsible for last year's oil disaster go toward restoring the gulf, rather than being diverted to unrelated federal spending. This bill, called the RESTORE Act, is vital for Gulf Coast restoration, and the support of Audubon advocates like you has helped to keep it moving through Congress. Now we need a concerted national effort to get it passed fully through both Houses of Congress and signed into law. (Click here to take action right now!)

You may have seen Audubon experts quoted on these encouraging developments in newspapers like The New York Times and the Houston Chronicle, but what doesn't always make the headlines, and what I want to highlight for you now, is the good work that Audubon staff and volunteers are performing every single day to make the Gulf Coast a better place for birds and people alike. Here are three examples:

  • Deep in Louisiana's Bayou Country, at Audubon's Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary, Audubon staff members Karen Westphal and Timmy Vincent are building new bird habitat every week with a one-of-a-kind type of small dredging machine. They are pumping muddy water into marsh damaged by hurricanes. As the mud piles up, birds drop in to feed, and plants quickly start to grow. This approach is a uniquely Audubon solution, and it's just one of many we're pursuing with our partners to restore the Mississippi River Delta, one of America's greatest natural resources and a key contributor to the gulf's bounty.
  • During the 2011 nesting season, some Gulf Coast birds from Texas to Florida got a helping hand from Audubon chapters and volunteers who educated beachgoers about the birds and how to keep them, their eggs, and their chicks safe. We're looking forward to expanding these stewardship efforts to even more Important Bird Areas in 2012. Additionally, citizen scientists collected information about birds and their coastal habitats throughout the year. The Audubon Coastal Bird Survey, with support from the Mississippi Coast Audubon Society, Mobile Bay Audubon Society, and Pascagoula River Audubon Center, enlisted more than 150 volunteers to survey 24 sites in Mississippi and Alabama. These volunteers counted some 65,000 birds representing 160 species. Audubon scientists are now linking hands across the Gulf Coast to standardize survey efforts from Texas to Florida, adding to the accuracy and impact of our work. The upcoming Christmas Bird Count and Great Backyard Bird Count extend these helping hands to our wealth of winter birds here all along the coast, so many of which are "your" birds the rest of the year (depending on where you live, of course!).
  • A partnership including Audubon, land trusts, private landowners, and parish, state, and federal agencies recently acted to save key tracts of an Important Bird Area in Louisiana. This valuable bird habitat is comprised of open coastal swamp and forested wetland areas of cypress and tupelo trees. The project is growing toward 150,000 acres of connected, and irreplaceable, conservation lands. A driving force behind the effort was a local landowner and developer who became enamored of the wildlife value of his holdings when he heard that it was an Audubon Important Bird Area. He rallied others to the cause, telling them about the globally significant populations of beautiful Prothonotary Warblers their swamps held.

Whether a struggling, oil-covered Brown Pelican on the Gulf Coast or the beautiful "sweet, sweet, sweet" song of a male Prothonotary Warbler along the Mississippi River, birds have the power to reconnect us to our deepest hopes for all life. Once we feel that connection, we know we must act on it. I so appreciate the actions so many have taken and are taking to make conservation not just a hope but a reality.