We made it to Mobile, Alabama on a mission to see the national wildlife refuges along the gulf and what is at stake before the oil slick hits shore. Once we landed, we immediately headed down the coast to Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. The name comes from the French meaning “safe harbor” which seems appropriate, and hopefully not ironic, as over the next few weeks oil threatens the shore line. What struck me immediately was the beautiful white sandy beaches, which could sadly turn black from the impending oil. We walked along the Jeff Friend Trail to the shoreline, passing lizards running for cover, a small and patient copperhead snake (who posed for a few pictures for Krista, our photographer, before moving back into the scrub) and numerous migrating song birds and dragon flies. When we hit the beach, it became all too real what a sanctuary this place is for the many plants and animals that reside here. The refuge is surrounded by beach houses and other shoreline development. We all do love the same beautiful places that the wildlife love, don’t we? This refuge is fairly small, compared to most national wildlife refuges, but is the largest undeveloped parcel of land left along the Alabama coast and has been designated one of the 10 natural wonders of Alabama. All too critical for the many critters that call this place home.
We checked in with the refuge staff, who were more then welcoming. It was fun to see some of my former colleagues and friends from my days at the Fish and Wildlife Service. We reminisced and then talked about the wildlife they are responsible for protecting. They shared that Bon Secour is one of the furthest beaches west for loggerhead sea turtles, which they are expecting to nest within the next couple of weeks. It pains me to think of what these turtles will swim through to get to their nesting beach and whether they will even make it here alive to deposit the eggs of the next generation of little loggerheads before they head back into the perilous waters of the Gulf. And what challenges any hatchlings will most certainly face once they head back into the coastal waters which will be in real trouble over the next few months.
The refuge is also home to one of my favorite little critters, the critically endangered Alabama beach mouse. These nocturnal critters are not around during the day so we did not get the privilege of seeing any during our visit. The refuge manager, Jereme Phillips, said they live further up in the dunes, so they might be better off than some animals, such as the sea turtles, if oil hits the shoreline.
Denise Rowell, an outreach specialist with the Service also commented on the outpouring of support for the wildlife and the refuge. Denise told me they had heard from one woman who was collecting hair. She planned to collect as much hair as she could, stuff it into nylon and put it in the water to soak up the oil. She said others were suggesting collecting old pillows to soak up the oil. The creativity of these people is impressive and touching.
As we moved along the shoreline, an osprey soared over our heads. I thought, I wonder if he can see the spill from up here? I wonder if he knows what could be in store for him? We also saw a number of Great Blue Herons fishing along the shoreline. Brown pelicans (a recently recovered coastal bird) flew overhead in formation. I found myself thinking about the food chain that will be so affected in the coming months. All of these birds depend on a healthy aquatic system (fish, invertebrates, etc.) to survive and all of that is expected to be negatively impacted. Bon Secour is also home to over 400 species of birds, including some of my favorite song birds such as painted bunting and scarlet tanager.
In the early evening, we met up with Secretary Salazar, who was touring the coastline and had just been out to place some booms to protect the refuge and its treasures. He looked exhausted as he greeted me. He said “this is horrible… it’s awful.” He greeted the press and told them that he will not rest until we get the job done. Earlier that day he had been with the BP folks and inspected the newly built cap as they placed it on the ship to send it out to the spill site with the hope that it will cap the gushing oil. He said that they are doing everything they can to stop the leak.
He also said this never should have happened. How true that is. But it did happen, and at what cost? Only time will tell. In the meantime, this should be a wake up call to all of us. We should not be in this position of having to clean up after such a tragic spill. It’s time for us to move on to safer, cleaner and greener sources of energy. We should never let this happen again. The cost is way too high!
Today we head to Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge.