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Volume 42, Number 5September/October 1991

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Safe Haven for Birds

Written by Downs Matthews
Photographed by Dan Guravich

From the midair vantage point of a mottled duck, the coastal plain of southeast Texas must seem intimidating. In Jefferson County alone, no fewer than four oil refineries and 21 chemical factories sprawl across the land. Port facilities, canals, oil and gas fields, pipelines - all the vast infrastructure of the petroleum industry - occupy much of what, at the turn of the century, was prime habitat for water and shore birds.

Yet the mottled duck, a Texas native, returns every year to a special refuge, along with scores of other species that welcome the chance to nest and raise their chicks in safety. By the thousands, they arrive in the early spring and settle into more than 1050 hectares (2600 acres) of wetlands and ponds set aside for wildlife at the Star Enterprise Port Arthur Plant.

Here, a few miles south of the historic Spindletop oil field discovered in 1901, much of America's energy industry evolved. One of the major oil companies founded as a consequence of the Spindletop bonanza was The Texas Company, now called Texaco. In 1903, the company built a refinery near Port Arthur to handle its Spindletop crude, and in time that refinery expanded to cover not quite one-fifth of a 2100-hectare (5200-acre) tract of land. Today the refinery belongs to Star Enterprise, a joint venture of Texaco and Saudi Aramco, and employs 1450 people in Port Arthur and its surroundings. Each day, they convert 250,000 barrels of oil (one barrel equals 159 liters or 42 US gallons) into fuels and lubricants to be used by American motorists.

Yet not far from their distillation towers and storage tanks, Star Enterprise specialists also maintain a very different kind of "plant": important marsh and bayou habitats that serve as safe havens for birds and other wildlife.

"We consider ourselves and our company as environmental stewards," emphasizes Ron Korbini, environmental supervisor for the Star Enterprise Port Arthur Plant. "We are committed not only to the conservation of natural resources but to their enhancement. That's our initiative for the nineties."

Rebecca Demeter, a senior project chemist in the Environmental Health and Safety Division, takes the lead as wildlife preservation coordinator for the plant. Her efforts to improve bird habitat on the wetlands and watercourses surrounding the refinery have proved irresistible to many species of birds. Spring visitors routinely include mottled duck, black-bellied whistling duck, blue- and green-winged teal, great egrets, snowy egrets, roseate spoonbills, black-crowned night herons, Louisiana (tricolored) herons, olivaceous cormorants, little blue herons, white ibis and more. Many have relocated here from other coastal areas" where loss of habitat to human needs and an excess of predators threaten bird populations.

Around the Port Arthur Plant in spring, however, bird families bend the limbs of sugarberry and black willow trees that arch above the steep banks of Alligator Bayou. Great and snowy egrets gleam whitely among the dark leaves like fragments of fallen full moons. Roseate spoonbills in peignoirs of shocking pink balance in the treetops and quarrel over domestic matters. Olivaceous cormorants greet their mates with bullfrog croaks. Black-crowned night herons sit stolidly in their chosen trees, looking like deacons in church - but the egrets watch them warily, for night herons sometimes prey on the weggs and chicks of other species.

In the treetops, the wallflowers sit, hoping to attract avian swains. A male great egret glides down the watery avenue of the bayou and arrives at the receiving line of waiting females with a twig in his beak that seems suitable for nest-building. He offers it to a comely female, who, by accepting it, also accepts him as a mate. She adds the twig to an existing nest built up by generations of egrets.

Among the nesters, the turf wars are shrill and continuous. An egret sitting on a clutch of sky-blue eggs defends her territory from encroachment with warning squawks. A claimant who persists is repelled by blows from the owner's wings and jabs from her dagger-sharp beak.

More than 7000 pairs of birds nest in the mature forest that lines this stretch of Alligator Bayou and its adjacent ponds. Dollops of guano whiten and fertilize the bayou's warm, green waters as they meander slowly toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Each tree wears a messy garnish of nests constructed of twigs and leaves. Eggs fill some of them; from others, chicks peer wide-eyed and fright-wigged at the world.

His two-hour shift on the nest over, an off-duty snowy egret parent sits in the sun and preens the gossamer tresses of his breeding plumage. These lacy graceful feathers almost led to the extinction of the species during the 19th century, when plume hunters killed egrets by the thousands to supply feathers to the ladies' millinery trade. Now protected from hunting, egrets are endangered chiefly by loss of habitat and a dwindling supply of prey species such as frogs.

Along the bayou bank, where sweet honeysuckle blossoms offset the sour smell of bird droppings, a female snowy egret hunts food for her chicks. In the shallows, she plants her golden feet with care and waits motionless as a school of minnows swims" downstream. Foraging for mosquito larvae, the little fishes fail to notice the glittering black eye that watches them. The sharp black beak stabs downward with deadly precision and claps shut on a wriggling darter.

Rising on broad, slow-stroking wings, the egret returns to her nest. As she descends in a flurry of feathers, her fuzzy chicks gape avidly and struggle to be first in line at the cafeteria. One overeager nestling clambers out of the nest onto the supporting branch, then loses its grip and topples into Alligator Bayou. A pair of yellow eyes promptly surfaces upstream, and at the apex of a V-shaped wake, an alligator moves quietly toward the struggling infant. Its jaws open briefly, casually, and the hapless bird disappears without a sound. Yet nesting birds are in greater danger from such predators as raccoons, opossums, feral dogs and cats, and human vandals than from alligators.

To give nesting birds the protection and privacy they require in rearing their chicks, refinery personnel keep watch to prevent human harassment or poaching. Any unauthorized visitor will immediately be challenged by a refiner concerned for the welfare of "his" birds. Another program of trapping and removal seeks to discourage animal predators that sometimes prowl the rookery.

Port Arthur citizens likewise have been encouraged to become environmental partners through Star Enterprise programs in civic clubs and schools that emphasize the need to protect wildlife. As adults and children alike become more aware of their environment, wild birds gain a constituency of concerned people: humans willing to take an active interest in their welfare. As a result, bird populations that were once declining along the Texas coast have now stabilized in the Port Arthur area.

Jim E. Neaville, wildlife biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, praises Star Enterprise's efforts to encourage wildlife. Other companies should introduce similar programs, he believes.

"They've got all the elements in place here," he says, "and they are making all the right moves for the right reasons."

Earlier demands saw industry learn to live with wildlife populations instead of driving them away, Neaville says.

"In the nineties, I think we will find more companies undertaking proactive programs like this one to encourage the return of wildlife as a valuable natural asset," he says. "Star Enterprise is exercising leadership in showing them how."

Central to the success of the refuge is the refinery's 160-hectare (400-acre) system of water reservoirs. While providing process water to the refinery, these small lakes also support ducks, cormorants and other diving birds.

To preserve water quality, Star Enterprise built a drainage and canal system for capturing and diverting rainwater falling on plant grounds. It is segregated from process water - used as a coolant in the refining process - to eliminate the chance of contamination. The goal: to make sure that only clean water, safe for birds and their habitats, flows into the wetlands and bayous of the refuge.

To further encourage birds, Star Enterprise is creating crawfish ponds where crude oil storage tanks once stood. A larger food supply would attract some of the 12,000 pairs of birds that are now crowding into another wildlife refuge nearby, Meaville believes.

Environmental managers at Star Enterprise plan to enhance the marshy areas of the refuge by maintaining water levels and encouraging the growth of types of vegetation preferred by birds. A landfill soon to be capped with topsoil will get a planting of millet, which many birds find tasty. Other parts of the refinery grounds will be planted in red clover, something mottled ducks prefer. In time, plantings of wildflowers and evergreens will provide cover and food for ground-nesting birds such as mottled ducks and black-bellied whistling ducks.

Their presence helps Star Enterprise prove that environmental and economic values can coexist, given the concern and the right kind of planning.

"As an industry, we plan the extraction of natural resources and their conversion into useful products," Ron Korbini says. "It's logical for us to plan for environmental conservation, as well. We see ourselves as stewards of the natural world."

Free-lance writer and author Downs Matthews, a native Texan, specializes in wildlife subjects.

This article appeared on pages 12-17 of the September/October 1991 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1991 images.