Hurricane Sandy Update From the Field: Coastal Birds Show Survival Skills in North Carolina

Hurricane Sandy Update From the Field: Coastal Birds Show Survival Skills in North Carolina

Alisa Opar
Published: 11/06/2012

We have had the chance to study the impact of hurricanes on beach-nesting birds in North Carolina. In the nesting season that follows a severe storm, like Sandy, nesting productivity generally improves. The number of breeding pairs at a given site can also increase. There are two primary reasons: first, the nesting habitat improves as a result of the overwash caused by the storm; second, the overwash reduces mammalian predators. The improvements can last for several years, even as many as 10 years, depending on the storm and the island.


What’s being done on the ground right now? Is long-term restoration work going to be required?

There are many shorebird folks trying to assess the damage to shorebird habitat. It appears that there have been some issues with managed impoundments that are important for some species of shorebirds. These impounded wetlands often have issues with saltwater intrusion and destruction of dikes or other water control structures. They are expensive and time consuming to repair, so habitat in these areas may be rendered unsuitable for a while.


We are assessing the impacts of the storm on Audubon sanctuaries and other places that are important for coastal birds. Our sanctuaries on the Outer Banks likely experienced erosion and there may have been some loss of habitat. We’ll know more next week.


One of the greatest coastal bird issues from storms like Sandy is how ‘we’ change the coastline in an attempt to stabilize the coast, whether it is in response to a storm or sea level rise, and try to prevent damage from another storm. There is already talk of the need to armor the coast. 


Stabilization of barrier islands equals loss of habitat for coastal species that depend on those habitats: birds, sea turtles, and more. Dredging and beach replenishment projects, hardened structures (jetties, terminal groins, etc.), and other coastal engineering projects will have a negative impact on coastal birds. Birds can survive these storms, but they can’t persist if the habitat they depend on is permanently lost.


There will be more storms and there will be bigger storms; likely sooner rather than later.


What kinds of emotions come up as you think about the damage and the recovery?

In the aftermath of such a storm, I think back to the hurricanes that hit the North Carolina coast. I’ve seen the flooding, the loss of homes, the damage, and the impact these storms have on people firsthand. I’ve been one of those people without power or water, and faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of recovering from such a storm. I’ve seen all of the belongings of people—everything in their home—piled in the yard because they’ve been flooded and everything is damaged beyond salvage. I’ve seen the stress on families, friends, and neighbors. 


At the same time, I’ve seen the tragedy of such a storm bring people together; neighbors, strangers before the storm, and entire communities, all in the same situation and working together to support each other, help each other, comfort each other, and recover.


I don’t worry too much about the birds and their habitat. Birds have been surviving storms for as long as there have been birds and storms. Some species need storms to create good habitat. They have evolved to coexist with storms and they have evolved to require the habitat that is created by storms. Birds that nest on beaches are such species (least terns, common terns, black skimmers, piping plovers, and others). They need storms periodically to create the bare sandy habitat they need for nesting.


I do worry about the knee-jerk reaction by some in response to such a storm in an attempt to try to ‘fix it’ and not be entirely sure what they are actually trying to fix. They just want to do something, or they want to rebuild in the same location then stand there with arms crossed and dare another storm come. I don’t mean to sound cynical or insensitive, but there will be more storms and there will be bigger storms. We need to think about the future of barrier islands and our dynamic coastline, and how we plan for the future.

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