By Anne Mitchell
A large number of brown pelicans and northern gannets rescued from the oil spill along the Louisiana coast were transported to Sanibel Monday and released at an oil-free island beach.
Twenty-one brown pelicans and 11 northern gannets were airlifted in transport crates aboard a U.S. Coast Guard HC-144 Ocean Sentry aircraft from New Orleans Airport to Page Field General Aviation Airport in Fort Myers. They made the trip to Sanibel in four rented vans. The birds, which had been rescued and rehabilitated after being oiled in the Gulf Coast waters, were set free before a crowd of onlookers at Gulfside City Park. The release was authorized and coordinated under the direction of the Unified Commands in New Orleans, Houma, Mobile and Miami with assistance from the National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Coast Guard, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and the City of Sanibel.
Officials chose Sanibel as a release site based on three criteria, said Dr. Jenny Powers, the NPS wildlife veterinarian who accompanied the birds from New Orleans. “First is the suitability of habitat and then the oil trajectory and weather,” she said. “The release site also needs to be close to an airport.”
Because Sanibel Island lies well outside the area that will likely be affected by oil-spill impact (experts predict a one percent likelihood of impact) and is similar in environment
to the birds’ homelands along the Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi coast, and within the species’ home range, it made an ideal release spot.
The birds had been rescued and treated by various agencies in the Gulf Coast states. They were in rehabilitation for 10 to 14 days, according to Dr. Powers. Pelicans have among the best recovery rates among birds impacted by oil, she added. On Sanibel, the pelicans were released at water’s edge following the release of the gannets directly into the water. A crowd of media, refuge staff, and beach-goers gathered to applaud their flawless release.
Rehabilitation center staff banded the birds’ legs with alpha-numeric red bands, as
well as traditional aluminum bands. The red bands allow birdwatchers to more easily identify the birds and the public is requested to help in reporting any sightings to the refuge or at 800-327-BAND. “We’ve only released immature birds up to this point, and they often return to near the vicinity they came from,” said Dr. Powers. “We don’t know what the adults will do.”