Great Bend The great blue heron is no longer blue.
It’s black, covered in oil.
When it showed up Tuesday at Cheyenne Bottoms, wildlife officials were puzzled. And although they haven’t ruled out a lone flight from the Gulf of Mexico, they said it is unlikely.
Wildlife specialists say they aren’t going to see the full impact of the Gulf oil spill on migratory birds until this fall when the birds, such as the whooping crane, begin migrating toward the Gulf.
On those migrations, birds usually visit Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, two major wetlands in central Kansas.
For now, oil-soaked birds such as the heron found earlier this week at Cheyenne Bottoms near Great Bend may be a sign of a local problem — birds landing in uncovered oil pits.
“This is not the time of year birds should be migrating,” said Dan Mulhern, biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, based in Manhattan. “The birds are nesting and stationary. Most likely it came from an uncovered pit in the local vicinity. But anything is possible. It’s very unusual.”
A few days earlier, a couple of Kansas birders spotted an oil-covered upland sandpiper not far from Yates Center.
The bird was black on the head and back, but, like the heron, still managing to fly.
The heron hasn’t been seen since Wednesday. No other sightings of the sandpiper have been reported.
Karl Grover, area manager at Cheyenne Bottoms, thinks the heron may somehow have entered a local oil tank battery — a group of tanks connected to receive crude oil from a well — near Great Bend.
“It’s not often but it happens,” Grover said. “It’s been several years since I’ve seen it. We’ve got tank batteries all over the place. Some companies are better than others at keeping them covered. But the birds get so soaked they can’t fly.”
Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas, agreed with Grover.
“One of the things that happens is that when you have a lot of drilling for new wells, you have disposal pits. If those pits aren’t flagged to keep the birds from going in, you will create the same kind of hazardous tar pits that we have always had since prehistoric times,” Klataske said.
Regulating oil wells
The Kansas Corporation Commission oversees and regulates Kansas oil wells. When it comes to wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials oversee the management of any wildlife affected by the wells.
Regulations call for oil pumpers to have their rigs covered with netting.
In the past 15 years, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks district biologist Charlie Cope said he remembers responding to only three to four calls regarding oil-covered birds.
There may be a heightened awareness this summer because of the BP oil spill threatening the Gulf Coast, Cope said.
But it’s unlikely any birds would make it to the heartland this summer, said Ken Brunson, wildlife diversity coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
“It is way late on shorebird migration,” Brunson said. “Herons are fairly local. They don’t migrate far. They stay around in winter as long as there is open water. That guy got into oil fairly closely.”
Typically, when wildlife gets into oil, the companies must pay for any cleanup and rehabilitation the birds or animals go through.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 protects birds such as upland sandpipers, herons, geese and whooping cranes, Cope said.
And although it is up to a judge to decide what penalty might be placed on violators, Cope said, individuals found responsible may face fines of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment and double that plus possible jail time for organizations.
In Kansas, most wildlife biologists say few cases have been pressed to full prosecution. “Fortunately, things have gotten better in recent years,” Brunson said. “If there are problems, companies have been better at fixing them.”