Sandy’s Impact on Coastal Bird Habitat
By Patrick Comins on February 13, 2013, 10:25pm Last modified: February 14, 2013, 1:55pm
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Hurricane Sandy caused catastrophic damage to a remarkably large area of the eastern seaboard on October 30th, 2012. Sandy’s arrival coincided with a full moon and corresponding astronomical high tide. Her ensuing storm surge disrupted the lives of millions of east coast residents and caused in excess of $60 billion in property damage from Maine to the Carolinas.
These effects were not limited to the human environment; the storm also had a dramatic effect on coastal habitats for birds and other wildlife. Important island nesting areas eroded away while , beaches and dune systems were significantly altered. Staff from both Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Audubon Society assessed the damage and contributed to a report by the American Littoral Society and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation that estimates nearly $50 million is needed to repair damage and respond to habitat changes at important wildlife habitats along the east coast. The report can be found here: http://www.nfwf.org/hurricanesandy1/Hurricane-Sandy-Coastal-Habitats.pdf
In many cases, historic nesting sites for birds like the federally threatened Piping Plover and state threatened Least Tern eroded to the point that nesting in these locations may no longer be possible. The good news is that the storm also created new habitat and the birds are well-equipped to take advantage of it. They have adapted to such storm events and the naturally dynamic nature of our shoreline. In fact, without storms dune vegetation takes hold and gradually spreads towards the high tide line. During these times the beach-nesting birds eke out their existence in the shrinking zone between the dune grass and high water line.
When a storm like Sandy comes along, dunes move landward, turning over on themselves, scouring vegetation or covering it with sand. This creates new nesting areas at higher elevations that offer protection from tidal flooding.
Under normal circumstances, storms like this are just what these birds need every few years, but today our shorelines are hardly natural systems. Many areas have been reinforced to protect human infrastructure and the remaining wild areas of barrier beaches and tidal marsh systems tend to be magnets for human activity, whether birding, fishing, hiking. swimming or sunbathing. Often, there is no room for the birds to nest without being disturbed by people or their pets.
The new nesting areas Sandy formed are likely to be closer to high traffic areas than the older sites were and in places where beach-goers are not used to sharing the shore with these fascinating, but vulnerable creatures. Without proper stewardship of their nesting colonies, the birds are unlikely to take advantage of the new habitat and successfully produce the bumper crop of chicks they will need to make it through the next storm event.
Fortunately, a little respect for both the birds and their nesting areas goes a long way to ensure there is plenty of room for both birds and people to share our shores. The Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds was formed in 2012 and combines the forces of the state's two largest bird conservation organizations for the common cause of protecting coastal waterbirds. Funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation helped the Connecticut Audubon Society http://www.ctaudubon.org/ and Audubon Connecticut http://ct.audubon.org/ to launch the Alliance last season.
Alliance staff worked closely with state and federal agencies with the goal of improving stewardship and minimizing conflict between birds and people along the Connecticut coastline. The program was tremendously successful in its first season, with more than 70 volunteers who put in 1872 hours of time monitoring and conserving nesting Piping Plovers, Least Terns and other coastal waterbirds. We think this increased stewardship was a key factor in a 34% increase in the productivity of state-threatened Least Terns statewide last summer.
In the aftermath of Sandy, these birds need help more than ever. With your help we can build upon last year’s success and ensure that Connecticut’s coastal birds are successful in the face of a highly altered landscape. To find out more about the Audubon Alliance and how you can volunteer or otherwise help please see:
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Piping Plover chick, photo by Paul J. Fusco