Mike Coffey pretended he was holding a frying pan in his empty hands.

“Think of it just like a frying pan,” he said. “Just pretend you want to wash the frying pan.”

Except that the frying pan is alive, covered in feathers and can bite you — if you can catch it.

Coffey, of Bettendorf, is a biologist in the Moline office of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and is back from two stints helping catch oiled birds in Louisiana.

Even though he’s been back a couple of weeks, the rush of it is fresh.

“It leaves you with a sense of satisfaction,” he said of his total of six weeks in Venice and Cocodrie and all around the Mississippi Delta. “You know you contributed.”

And how.

When he wasn’t helping safely capture birds, mostly brown pelicans and terns, to be cleaned like greasy frying pans, he had lots of other stuff to do. His daily assignments were 

dictated largely by what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, predicted was going to happen to the millions of gallons of oil that leaked for months from a BP well under the Gulf.

“Our teams would kind of grow and shrink in size, according to which way the oil was going each day,” Coffey said. “NOAA’s models are used for the placement of personnel.”

Whether his daily assignment was to catch birds or to cruise the alligator-infested waters of the Delta, mapping out the locations of breeding colonies for other biologists, his days began mostly the same: “We’d get up at dawn, have an early breakfast, a 7 a.m. briefing, and we got out on the water.

“People on my team are mostly looking for oiled wildlife.”

Sometimes, in the really sad cases, the birds were easy to catch. The brown pelicans, for instance, dive for their food, and the oil would cover their insides. They would get sick from it, along with the oil that stuck to their feathers, throwing their natural body insulators out of whack.

“The oiled birds aren’t usually immediately catchable,” he said. “Over time, they wear out and get weaker. After time, you can just scoop them up.”

Next, the birds were put into pet carriers and shuttled to the cleaning stations for rehabilitation.

“Their survivalship is real good,” Coffey said. “After they’re cleaned, they are relocated to a safe, clean habitat.”

But releasing the rescued birds isn’t the end of it. Every pet carrier has to be decontaminated before the process can start again — wherever the oil migrates.

Though Coffey is a contaminants biologist, he knows more about spills than how to rescue wildlife from the muck. He can expertly talk about the booms that are set to stop the movement of oil, and he can talk about oil itself — how the volatility of the chemical evaporates, leaving a tar that is just as damaging to wildlife.

“Sometimes, you could smell it coming,” he said of the oil. “To the birds, it’s just another shiny surface. The shore birds walk right into it.”

As fulfilling as it was, rescuing birds and helping get future staging areas set for the next teams of biologists, something else was just as powerful to Coffey.

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“What got me was the culture,” he said. “I get choked up thinking about it. The local shrimp and lobster fishermen piloted our boats. We’d spend 12 hours a day, patrolling with these pilots.

“They started to come and stay on our barge, so they could start out first thing in the morning. One of them was a 60-year-old fisherman who has been in that one parish, fishing, since he was 14.

“They know those waterways inside-out. And they shared everything with us. I like to say: The beauty of the landscape there is surpassed only by the people.”

It might sound as if Coffey is at the front end of the massive effort to save wildlife from the worst environmental disaster ever, but there are many steps before the ones he takes. Even before the cleaning stations are set up, wildlife veterinarians decide which species need areas where they can perch as they recover and which ones need pools.

“There are people who clean turtles and those who help the dolphins,” he said. “We’re all mixing out there — each doing our thing. When I first got there, the fisheries were open, and the marinas were, too.

“Before my tours’ end, the fisheries were closed, and BP had taken over, because they needed all the slips in the marina. Whole economies shifted from food and recreation to a disaster economy.”

There would be helplessness in watching it if Coffey’s hands were tied.

But they weren’t.

Contact Barb Ickes at (563) 383-2316 or bickes@qctimes.com.