The Deepwater Horizon oil spill directly impacted birds and their habitats at an unprecedented scale within the northern Gulf of Mexico (PDARP 2016). Early efforts to determine pre-spill baseline conditions for avian resources highlighted the lack of adequate data to inform decision-makers, including: (1) the lack of comprehensive, integrated bird data that could be used in the assessment of injury across the northern Gulf of Mexico; and (2) the evaluation of bird response to future on-the-ground restoration efforts. However, this environmental disaster has also resulted in an equally unprecedented focus on the Gulf ecosystem and resources to support its restoration and recovery. Designing a coordinated, integrated, and collaborative avian monitoring program for this system has many challenges including: (1) the scope and scale of the Gulf ecosystem; (2) the diversity, abundance, and seasonal dynamics of birds using the northern Gulf; (3) the number of partners, stakeholders, and required expertise; and (4) the amount of funding required to successfully design and implement a Gulf-wide avian monitoring program. Yet meeting this challenge is imperative to understanding population trends and cause and effect relationships that underscore demographic processes that drive trends; as well as providing a basis for judging success of Gulf restoration efforts (NAS 2016).
Gulf of Mexico Birds & Habitats
Birds are a remarkable natural resource within the Gulf of Mexico. They occur across a variety of habitats and ecological niches across this region. Barrier islands, beaches, marshes, coastal forests, and the open ocean support hundreds of species and millions of individuals. Colonial-nesting waterbirds feed near the top of the food chain in shallow water, whereas overwintering shorebirds forage on mudflats and beaches, and secretive marshbirds forage in marsh grasses at the interface of open water and land. Twice a year (spring and fall), coastal habitats (e.g. Cheniers, forested wetlands) provide essential stopover sites for millions of Neotropical migrant songbirds and the coastal marshes and bays serve as one of the most important areas for wintering waterfowl on the continent. Whereas the open ocean supports a variety of pelagic seabirds. Yet coastal habitats are increasingly stressed by a variety of anthropogenic activities and natural events that are often at odds with birds and their use of these habitats. Stressors such as land development, oil and gas activities, hurricanes, sea-level rise, degraded water quality, marine debris and pollution can fragment and reduce habitat quantity and quality in sensitive coastal ecosystems as well as the waters of the open ocean. Quantifying the magnitude of these impacts as well as evaluating contemporary restoration and management actions is a critical but complex and challenging task given the scope, scale and inter-connectedness of the Gulf ecosystem (DWH-NRDA-Trustees 2017).