Nobody could have predicted . . .
ORLEANS — The BP oil spill is creating uncertainty among the people who watch over some of the threatened and endangered wildlife that visit Cape Cod.
Many piping plovers born here this summer, for example, will eventually fly to winter grounds in the Gulf of Mexico, where BP's Deepwater Horizon rig has been releasing oil since April 20. And rare Kemp's ridley turtles, which ride the Gulf Stream to Cape Cod, now face a gauntlet of burning oil slicks and chemical dispersants as they cross the Gulf from their breeding grounds.
Gulf Coast beaches are also the winter home to terns and oystercatchers that migrate to the Cape.
"How do we face the fact that all of our hard-won successes on breeding beaches might be wiped out in an instant, as birds migrate and flock to their familiar beaches, only to find them covered in oil and their invertebrate meals tainted and smothered?" wrote Becky Harris, coastal water bird director for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, in a blog last week.
After struggling to protect plovers, least terns and oystercatchers from oversand vehicles, coyotes, crows, kites and dogs, wildlife experts feel the new threat looms large.
"They've said (this spill) will have a dramatic effect for five to 10 years, and maybe longer. It's sad," Orleans Parks and Beaches Superintendent Paul Fulcher said Tuesday.
Thanks to banding, bird experts have a good handle on the distribution of the Massachusetts population of American oystercatchers, Ellen Jedrey, assistant director of Massachusetts Audubon's Coastal Waterbird program, said Tuesday. "An estimated 30 percent of the Massachusetts population of oystercatchers — about 200 pairs — does winter along the Gulf Coast," she said.
The distinctive-looking oystercatchers — black and white with a long orange bill for opening shellfish — don't get as much press as piping plovers but need the same barrier beaches and marshes to breed and feed. The oystercatchers are relatively few in number — about 11,000 in the United States.
Piping plovers also are likely at risk from the spill, according to field ornithologist Chris Leahy at the Massachusetts Audubon Society. The birds migrate south in August and September to a variety of wintering grounds along the East Coast and Gulf Coast.
"If you look at the wintering range of the piping plover, it would be very good luck if New England piping plovers happened to winter outside the spill. There's a high likelihood that they will get onto wintering beaches where they will be affected by the oil," Leahy said.
The Kemp's ridley turtle, however, is in immediate danger. The rare sea turtle's only two breeding grounds are on the west side of the Gulf Coast, in Mexico and Texas' Padre Island, and young juveniles are believed to float across the Gulf on clumps of algae.
Now the clumps of algae, many covered with oil, are death traps because BP is burning off great patches of oil to keep it from coming ashore, according to Robert Prescott, executive director at the Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary of the Massachusetts Audubon society.
"There's a group of volunteers that is racing around in the Gulf and trying to net as many juvenile turtles as they can before the burning," he said Wednesday. "A lot of organisms, including turtles, are dying."
For years, Cape Codders have followed the fate of the dinner-plate-size turtles, the world's most endangered sea turtle. Each fall, volunteers walk Cape beaches to rescue cold-stunned ridleys that failed to leave the region before the water temperature gets too cold for them.