Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 20, 2010

Birds could bring Gulf misery here

Syndicated Columnist

---- — Gulf oil spill threatens Great Lakes migratory birds

— Great Lakes Echo, Michigan State University Knight Center for Environmental Journalism

As the crow flies, it's more than 1,500 miles from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the Gulf Coast of Louisiana.

But a Yooper politician has done the best job of anyone in the land of late of putting a laser focus on accountability issues involved in the nation's worst environmental disaster — the BP Gulf oil spill.

As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, last week conducted a nationally televised hearing during which BP chief executive Tony Hayward repeatedly said, "I was not involved in that decision ... I do not recall." It was a pitiful performance. Stupak told him: "You cut corners to save money and time." He later appropriately called the performance "Absurd ... ridiculous." The House's longest-serving member, John Dingell, D-Dearborn, peppered Hayward with questions he could not answer.

Those salvoes of scorn make great theater for a political columnist, but the slant here today is more from the perspective of a resident of a Great Lakes state whose migratory birds could be impacted.

Crows don't fly between here and there. But many of our other birds do. And there's reason to worry about them — from sizable loons to tiny hummingbirds.

MSU's June 18 online Great Lakes Echo ( item by Rachael Gleason said: "The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has many Great Lakes experts worrying about migratory birds making the trip home. But they say it's too early to tell the fate of birds wintering in the Gulf.

"Minnesota's state bird — the common loon — and the endangered piping plover are among many Great Lakes species that ride out the winter months along the southern coast.

"Although many have left for home already, some birds may still be in the region, where toxic oil is threatening habitats and food sources," the Great Lakes Echo said. "The oil spill could halt a slow recovery of the Great Lakes piping plover, but it will take time to fully understand the spill's impacts on migratory birds." While the majority of migratory birds are back in the Great Lakes, these "snowbirds" still could face possible contamination when they next head south.

Sue Jennings, biologist with the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where 19 pairs of nesting plovers (with 27 chicks and 43 eggs) this year are in the lakeshore at a time when there has been a slow, steady increase in the Great Lakes, said Friday, "We are very concerned" about the oil spill because of contamination that will confront the birds when they go south later this year.

Most of the Sleeping Bear plovers, small shorebirds, winter in the Carolinas but some do in the Gulf. The prospect remains that the "loop" current could carry the oil slick to the Carolinas.

Most Michiganians will not see the common loon, and certainly not the endangered plovers.

But what about our backyard birds?

Lifelong naturalist Tom Ford of Wild Birds Unlimited in Traverse City said Friday, "there could be a lot of mortality" among warblers, humming birds and others who stop along the Gulf to "stoke up" on their way to Michigan after wintering in Mexico and elsewhere.

Ford also had a comment that he acknowledged might not be welcomed by Stupak and other northern politicians who have been pushing for more aggressive moves against the double-breasted cormorant birds that anglers want eliminated because they eat sport fish.

He said cormorants, which are among migratory birds endangered by the Gulf oil spill contaminations, could be regarded as Great Lakes "heroes" in the sense that they help rid the lakes of the round goby, a fish species native to the Black and Caspian seas thought to be brought to the Great Lakes via ships' ballast water.

George Weeks retired in 2006 after 22 years as political columnist for The Detroit News. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.