ARANSAS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE -- Tentative wing-flapping led to graceful soaring and convivial preening Sunday as 38 brown pelicans rescued from the worst oil spill in U.S. history explored new digs in the blue-green waters of San Antonio Bay.
"They're Texas birds right now," said Dan Alonso, project leader for the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Complex and host for the largest release to date of birds rehabilitated from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the first release in Texas.
It had been a long morning for the pelicans, which, along with a single tern, made two road trips and a two-hour flight in the belly of a U.S. Coast Guard HC-144 transport plane in dog carriers.
Within minutes of their release, the birds began disappearing into the refuge, heartening biologists who feared that the birds might be too weak from ingested oil or the rehabilitation itself.
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"I think they've got really good chances now," said Tom Melius, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist overseeing the transfer. "The best thing for these birds is to get them back on their natural water as soon as possible. They know how to catch fish and feed. They know how to make a living for themselves."
Aransas is already home to brown pelicans and is one of 10 sites in Texas being considered for relocations of what biologists call the "pelican oil spill." Pelicans dominate the list of birds collected in the past two months in Alabama, Florida and Louisiana, which as of Friday numbered 665 alive and 212 dead.
About 200 pulled from muck in Alabama and Louisiana are reaching the stage where they can be released, and officials are looking west.
"If we just took them out 20 miles from where they were caught, put them back there in the water, they'd go back to where they were caught," Melius said. "Over here, hopefully they'll take time to preen, to restore their body conditions through natural feeding -- if it doesn't discourage them from going back, we hope it takes a long time."
There is debate about whether cleaning oil from birds is any more than a "feel-good" measure that only delays their deaths. Some studies point to altered breeding activity and harmed embryos.
"There is no way to know what their chances are, exactly," said James Remsen, a bird specialist at Louisiana State University. "Many marine birds home back to point of origin; whether this happens with brown pelicans is unknown."
Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Nancy Brown said all the birds had been banded, which made the release "an opportunity to get some good science."
For now, an array of state and federal agencies plan to coordinate more transfers to Aransas and other sites in Texas -- with BP footing the bill.
The air transport alone involved two pilots, two Coast Guard personnel and one representative each from the National Park Service, U.S. Geographical Survey, and Fish and Wildlife.
"We're keeping track," Alonso said. "All the hours, fuel, mileage -- we're keeping an exact account."