Two from Vicksburg part of Audubon aid

Published 12:04 am Saturday, June 12, 2010

Employees of Vicksburg’s Lower Mississippi River program office of the National Audubon Society are working to help out in the wake of the Gulf oil spill.

“People across the country are frustrated. They want to help,” said Bruce Reid, director of the local Audubon office, located on Washington Street.

This week, he traveled to Moss Point to the Pascagoula River Audubon Center, which is functioning as a call center. Up to 30 volunteers at a time contact more than 20,000 people who have signed up to help on the Audubon’s online volunteer database.

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“They’re terribly concerned, and immediately they started reaching out and saying, ‘I want to do something’,” Reid said.

The call center’s “function is to provide that constant communication,” he said. “It’s a constituency of people who care about what we care about — birds and habitats and communities. They also are scheduling and directing people to certain tasks in a four-state region — Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and the panhandle of Florida.”

Hundreds of volunteers have been deployed through Audubon to Louisiana to assist in such efforts as the transport and unloading of rescued birds and with communication between boats coming in with rescued birds and teams of people gathering to pick them up.

“We’re just trying to be kind of a go-between,” Reid said.

David Ringer, a communications coordinator for the Audubon’s Mississippi River Initiative who works out of the Vicksburg office, has been helping out in coastal Louisiana.

He said assistance is needed with basic tasks such as assembling transport cages for animals. The Audubon Society is not responsible for cleaning birds; that’s being handled by professional firms.

“We’re sort of filling in the gaps in the transport process in order to ensure that birds are not left on a hot dock in the sun while they’re waiting for the next line of transport,” said Ringer, who was at Grand Isle, La., when oil first appeared on shore.

“I’m looking out into the Gulf and the waves are cresting red almost as far as you can see — that’s terrifying,” he said. “You’re looking into the eyes of these birds that are truly covered in oil — that’s horrifying. Yes, they’re animals but they are suffering, and it’s our fault.”

This week, in Moss Point, volunteers were taught how to conduct an Audubon Coastal Bird Survey — identifying birds by species, detecting where they had been oiled and whether they’ve been exhibiting unusual behavior.

“Our effort now is to basically roll out and participate in that consistent data gathering through(out) those four states,” Reid said.

The science and conservation staff of the Audubon Society, which has protected birds on the Gulf Coast for decades, has been working to figure out what the oil spill will mean for future efforts in the area, Ringer said.

Audubon scored a victory last year when the brown pelican was removed from the endangered species list — and now it’s in danger again.

“This is becoming a fact of life,” Ringer said. “The emergency response in the short term is crucial.”

Audubon coastal scientist Dr. G. Paul Kemp says the Mississippi River might actually help keep oil away from some of Louisiana’s marshes, according to an Audubon press release.

The river divides into two branches, the Atchafalaya and the Mississippi, near Natchez. The Old River Control complex regulates the flow of water between, with 70 percent to Mississippi and 30 percent to Atchafalaya. According to the press release, Kemp says that slowly increasing the percentage of water going down the main stem of the Mississippi could hold oil offshore longer, giving response teams more time to deal with the spill before it threatens wildlife in the marshes.

“The river is a powerful tool, and it is an ally in this crisis,” Kemp said.