Galveston oil spill has already impacted birds

The Galveston Bay oil spill is having an impact on the wildlife on the Bolivar Peninsula, even as no oil has been spotted on the beaches. A 2,000 acre bird conservation area that sits at the end of the peninsula just before the Galveston ferry says the oil has spill affecting birds -- during the height of their migration season.

On Saturday afternoon, when a vessel -- towing two barges from Texas City to Bolivar Peninsula -- collided with another vessel, it spilled up to 170,000 gallons of oil.

A few days later, when people drive down the beaches on the western edge of the peninsula, they don't see the thousands of gallons of oil floating off its waters. Nonetheless, it's there and it's having real effects.

When Richard Gibbons, the director of conservation at the Houston Audubon Society, goes out to check the birds at Bolivar Flats, he was met with a surprise. The laughing gull, which normally has white feathers on its breast, has oil all over his body.

"Wow, look at that laughing gull. First, I thought it was a black bellied grovel, but it's all black," Gibbons told CBS affiliate KFDM's Leslie Rangel.

Gibbons takes the oiled bird back at the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, where conservation volunteers have been here since dawn counting birds.

"[The bird] probably sat in the water and got into the oil," Winnie Burkett, a volunteer for the Houston Audubon, explains. "When they clean the oil off their feathers, they ingest it goes down into their digestive system."

Bird conservationists say the birds who get oil on their bodies only have a 50 percent chance survival rate. Not part of their native environment, birds don't know how to interact with it, and so they don't know how to avoid it, says Burkett.

The conservation is not responsible for picking up oiled birds -- Texas Parks and Wildlife has special units dedicated to that purpose. However, for now, all the team can do is continue counting as many birds as possible.

"We continue to protect good healthy habitat for birds for their continued existence here," Gibbons said.

An existence the volunteers hope remains free of oil.