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Coastal News Roundup: New Research On Dispersants, And The Quest For An Elusive Marsh Bird

Nadje Najar
Audubon Louisiana
The black rail used to be found across the US, but has been pushed toward coastal marshes, including in Louisiana.

The chemicals used to clean up the BP oil spill may not have been as bad as previous studies suggest -- that’s one of a few themes from the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science (GOMOSES) Conference this week.

This week on the Coastal News Roundup, WWNO’s Travis Lux talks with | The Times-Picayune environment reporter Tristan Baurick about the latest in oil spill science.

Plus, Tristan tells us about his search for the elusive black rail -- a threatened bird that’s found a home in the precarious marshes of coastal Louisiana.


The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity:

Q: We’re talking this week from downtown New Orleans at the GOMOSES conference - the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science conference. It’s all about research on oil spills, but with a particular focus on the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Everything from really technical and biological stuff about fish, to social science research about the lasting emotional trauma of disasters. What stood out to you this week?

I spent a lot of time checking out the research on dispersants.

-- The chemicals used to break up the Deepwater Horizon spill oil on the surface of the water.

Right. A lot of scientists have been looking at the unforeseen effects of dispersants in recent years. At last year’s conference there was research presented about how dispersants can harm the bacteria that actually does the job of eating spilled oil. There was research about how it hurts coral, and how dispersants can vaporize oil and carry oil particles through the air and into people’s lungs.

Q: This year it’s a little different.

Yeah, this year there’s a lot of emphasis on how dispersants maybe aren’t that bad. Or that the negative effects have been overblown recently. Some of this is coming from scientists hired by the oil industry, but there is a National Academies of Sciences report coming out soon on this. [Previous consensus reports available here and here.] And we’re getting hints that it’s aimed at correcting the more extreme or negative perceptions of dispersants. So we’ll be curious to see what it says -- possibly next month -- when it comes out.

Q: I want to spend the rest of our time talking about a big story you have coming out next week. It’s about a little bird called the black rail. You told us a little about it in the fall. It used to be all over the country, but now there are only a few that are left and they’re hunkering down in coastal marshes across the country -- including here in Louisiana. What happened to this bird?

Well, we never really knew much about them because they’re so secretive and live in these remote marshes. A lot of the coastal marshes have disappeared as cities and farms have grown. That hasn’t really happened a lot on the Louisiana coast, so there’s a sense that we have a bit of a black rail stronghold here. Of course, our coast is rapidly eroding, so that’s another challenge for the bird.

Q: Last month you went on a big stakeout looking for black rails in Cameron Parish, in the southwest corner of the state. What was the goal of that trip? What were you doing out there?

So, scientists with Audubon Louisiana are trying to catch rails and gather basic data on them. There are a lot of gaps in our understanding of rails. We don’t know much about their breeding habits, or migration, what they eat, or what their prefered habitat is.

Q: What was it like out there? Did you have night-vision goggles?

That would probably have helped. They actually put me to work. They gave me a fishing net and spotlight, and we basically spent four hours each night hiking through the marsh, pulling a dragline with all these noisy cans full of bolts and BBs.

Q: That seems really loud. It seems like you’d want to be sneaky if you were trying to find a bird.

Well, they were trying to flush them out. They live in the grass and crawl around like rodents, sort of. When they’re flushed out they fly, but they don’t fly far because they kind of fly like chickens do. The idea is that you hit them with the spotlight and that stuns them. And then that gives you a chance to run over and get a net over them.

Q: What do they look like?

They’re tiny -- about the size of a mouse -- and they have blackish-gray feathers and kind of big feet. And they have red eyes.

Q: Here’s the big question: did you see any?

I’m going to say ‘no comment’ on that one because I don’t want to give everything away for the story that’s coming out.

Tristan Baurick’s story about black rails will be out next week at


Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Foundation for Louisiana, and local listeners.

As Coastal Reporter, Travis Lux covers flood protection, coastal restoration, infrastructure, the energy and seafood industries, and the environment. In this role he's reported on everything from pipeline protests in the Atchafalaya swamp, to how shrimpers cope with low prices. He had a big hand in producing the series, New Orleans: Ready Or Not?, which examined how prepared New Orleans is for a future with more extreme weather. In 2017, Travis co-produced two episodes of TriPod: New Orleans at 300 examining New Orleans' historic efforts at flood protection. One episode, NOLA vs Nature: The Other Biggest Flood in New Orleans History, was recognized with awards from the Public Radio News Directors and the New Orleans Press Club. His stories often find a wider audience on national programs, too, like NPR's Morning Edition, WBUR's Here and Now, and WHYY's The Pulse.

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