Hurricane Sandy Update From the Field: Audubon Connecticut Assesses Nesting Habitat and Reflects On an Important Success Story

Hurricane Sandy Update From the Field: Audubon Connecticut Assesses Nesting Habitat and Reflects On an Important Success Story

Julie Leibach
Published: 11/07/2012

The sanderlings were frantically feeding along the Connecticut shore as the tide went out. Photograph courtesy of Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds.

Audubon Connecticut director of bird Conservation Patrick Comins provides a firsthand account about how Hurricane Sandy affected the state’s beach habitat.


How did the storm affect the coast and bird habitat there? What does it look like??

There were very significant impacts to coastal waterbird habitat. (See our Audubon Alliance Facebook page for photos here before and after). 

One of the big success stories of this storm is the fact that the abandoned cottages at Long Beach West, in Connecticut, were removed before Irene and Sandy (through a multi-organization/agency partnership that included Audubon, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and others). There were 42 cottages there before the winter of 2010-11, and I doubt five of them would be standing today, and they would have all been washed into the Great Meadows Marsh, contaminants and all. So, this is a huge success story for Audubon and the American Recover and Reinvestment Act. (Read more about this effort here and in Audubon magazine here.)

There was significant to extreme overwashing of most dune and barrier beach systems in coastal CT. Areas that were previously nesting areas may now be unsuitable, but new habitat may have formed on top of the dunes.

Audubon CT's Patrick Comins.

It is too early to assess elevations, and all of that will likely change with nor’easters this winter, including this week.

The dunes have hardly any dune grass, which is good for terns/plovers, but makes them more vulnerable to erosion. Griswold Point, where the Audubon Alliance helps The Nature Conservancy with their beach stewardship efforts, in particular was impacted and is now detached from the mainland. This is good and bad news. We haven’t been able to assess the habitat remaining on what’s now Griswold Island, but the breech leaves Great Island—one of the most important nesting areas in the world for saltmarsh sparrows—completely exposed to wave and current action for future storms.

The bottom line is that we have a whole new playing field and need more resources next nesting season to get out and assess nesting areas early on and try to manage people. Many of the new nesting areas are going to be closer to areas of high human/dog traffic. In a perfect world, the storm would have been a net benefit for beach nesting birds, but management/conflicts/disturbance and calls for increased hardening of the shoreline are going to keep us very, very busy. We need support more than ever to ensure that we can bring our beach stewardship efforts to the next level. 

On the bright side, tree damage inland was not as severe as 2011’s October snowstorm and Hurricane Irene, mostly due to minimal rain and advanced state of leaf drop. Red oaks at the shore seem to have been hit the hardest, so there may be some impacts to spring warbler habitat for migrants. There are probably some new canopy gaps all over the place, which could temporarily benefit early successional birds. 

The region where most of the terns and plovers nest on Long Beach West is missing most of the dune vegetation, which would be good for beach-nesters. But will this area and its birds withstand spring tides and dogs running off-leash? Time will tell. Photo courtesy of Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds.

What kind of birdlife have you been seeing out in the field?
There were many birds blown off course, e.g. probable Herald petrel in Pennsylvania and both species of pelican (brown and American white) in Connecticut. For some, like siskins, they appear to have sensed the storm coming and moved on. We had flocks of up to 200 before the storm at the Audubon Center at Bent of the River, and they mostly left in the days leading up to it. Many of the birds that stayed put appear pretty battered. I’m seeing quite a few distressed purple finches and pine siskins at the Bent.

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