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Pelicans rescued from BP oil disaster are released at Fort De Soto park

FORT DE SOTO — The birds waddled out of their cages. In groups of two, they moved quickly.

Most flew off right away. Some stuck around, letting a gentle current carry them away from the beach.

Cameras tracked every move. The pelicans were oblivious.

Two weeks ago, the birds — 32 brown pelicans in all — were picked up off the coast of southeast Louisiana. All had been awash in oil from the BP disaster.

On Wednesday afternoon, under the watchful eyes of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, park volunteers, media and a clump of beachgoers, the rescued birds were released on a secluded spot on North Beach.

"It was beautiful to see that they all wanted to immediately get out and enjoy Fort De Soto," said local environmentalist Lorraine Margeson. "We might be the final refuge in the Gulf Coast region for wildlife to survive."

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This is the first time pelicans affected by the disaster have been relocated to Pinellas County, and the third time wildlife have been brought to the Tampa Bay area.

On May 23, seven birds — three brown pelicans, two northern gannets and two laughing gulls — found off the shore of Mississippi and Louisiana were flown here. The birds had been either covered in oil or dehydrated. They were rehabilitated at Fort Jackson, La., before arriving at Fort De Soto Park and then being taken on to Egmont Key State Park. Several more arrived and were taken to the preserve.

The birds released Wednesday also were rehabilitated at Fort Jackson. Officials initially were expecting more than 60 birds to be released, but only about half were ready for the trip Wednesday morning.

The birds that did make the trip didn't experience any distress, said Jenny Powers, a wildlife veterinarian with the National Park Service who was on the plane ride from New Orleans to Clearwater.

"They sat in crates for the ride and really didn't make a peep," Powers said.

Scientists expect the birds will stay in the Tampa Bay area because it has a good environment for them. Officials also have predicted that, compared to other parts of the state, the region has a lower chance of having oil reach its shores.

They also said this might not be the last time birds are relocated to Fort De Soto. More than 100 birds remain at the rehab center, Powers said.

"We want to try to keep these guys as close to what they call home as possible," she said.

Still, there are no guarantees.

No one knows how many of the birds will ultimately survive. Cassidy Legeune, a biologist for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said Wednesday that a recent report gave rehabbed birds an estimated 50 to 80 percent chance of survival.

But the Fort De Soto birds could have a better shot — maybe even 100 percent — because of the favorable environment, he said.

Whatever the birds do, many will be watching.

A network of scientists, bird watchers and volunteers are planning to track the pelicans, which were outfitted with two colorful bands on their feet before being released.

"A lot of people feel a little hopeless (about the disaster)," said park supervisor Jim Wilson. "We've been waiting for an opportunity to assist."

Margeson, a longtime volunteer at Fort De Soto, said its unusual habitat and ample nesting grounds translate into a better chance of thriving.

It also helps that a group of birds was released, rather than just one or two, she said.

"It's kind of like a new colony," she said.

Indeed, after their initial release, several of the birds congregated in the water for a few minutes before flying off like the others.

A few remained, squatting on a sandbar as volunteer bird watchers looked on from the shore.

"They were in pretty poor shape," said Legeune, the Louisiana biologist. "They looked pretty good today. These are pretty hardy birds. … I think they'll be okay."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

Pelicans rescued from BP oil disaster are released at Fort De Soto park 07/07/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 7, 2010 11:07pm]

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