Nightly News   |  May 03, 2010

How will oil spill affect bird migration?

NBC's Anne Thompson tours the Delta National Wildlife Refuge in Southeast Louisiana, where the blue heron, osprey and the brown pelican are threatened by the oil spill.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor (Venice, Louisiana): We're back from Venice , Louisiana , Plaquemines Parish . And now to the part of this that so many people have been dreading, the impact on wildlife. We have seen some of the first dead animals wash up on shore already. And now the issue, of course, is how long oil lingers once it enters an ecosystem. Our chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson is with us. Anne , people with no connection to this region, millions of them are watching just this aspect of this.

ANNE THOMPSON reporting: Absolutely, Brian , because the wildlife are attracted by Louisiana 's wetlands, and those wetlands are like no other. But what makes them so beautiful also makes them so difficult to defend against the oil. The only way you can drive to the Delta National Wildlife Refuge is in a boat. It is one of eight protected areas along southeast Louisiana 's coast, but not immune to the intrusion of the oil and gas industry . Just last month, a Chevron pipeline burst here, spilling 18,000 gallons of oil, a number that could be dwarfed by the BP blowout. When oil clings to the spongy marsh, the network of small waterways are almost impossible to clean up.

Mr. BEN WEBER: This is very typical.

THOMPSON: Ben Weber is with the National Wildlife Federation .

Mr. WEBER: One of the problems with this ecosystem, it's not -- it's not healthy. It's not, you know, at its most resilient state. It can't -- it's already a system in danger, it's already a system that's being lost.

THOMPSON: Since the 1930s , Louisiana has lost more than 2300 square miles of coastal wetlands, an area bigger than Delaware , taking away the habitats of the American alligator , the great blue heron , and birds that dive for food like the brown pelican . Now they're threatened by oil. Mr. JAY HOLCOMB (International Bird Rescue Research Center Executive Director): We've actually seen that, where fish will hide under oil because they think it's like kelp or plants. And the birds don't understand that.

THOMPSON: This week and next are the height of the migration season. For 10 million ducks and other migratory birds , these wetlands act as a stopover, the equivalent of Chicago's O'Hare Airport or Atlanta's Hartsfield , as they travel from north to south and back. So if I am a bird hunter up in North Dakota , why should I care about this here?

Mr. HOLCOMB: Because it's not an isolated event. You know, these wildlife move, and they need this area.

THOMPSON: Now, environmentalists are also concerned about the chemical dispersant that is being used on the oil slick both on the surface and underwater. They're afraid it's going to create another toxic soup for the marine life that're already dealing with water that has been fouled by oil, Brian .

WILLIAMS: A lot of firsts at play here.

THOMPSON: Mm-hmm.

WILLIAMS: Anne Thompson still on this story for us. Anne , thanks.