Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Monday, December 3, 2012

Hurricane Sandy and the Birds

When Hurricane Sandy struck just days before Halloween it flooded the coast and took down hundreds, if not thousands, of trees with extraordinary strong winds inland, putting buildings and people in the dark.

NJ Audubon's Scherman Hoffman center, NJ Audubon's main office and the nearby Great Swamp were hit particularly hard by the felling or shredding of trees (such as this one on Pleasant Plains Rd. in the Swamp). A friend of mine who lives not far from Scherman Hoffman had no power for nine days and refused to leave her increasingly chilly home without her animals. Luckily, they all survived.

In open areas, the devastation from Sandy doesn't look like much. But
in the forests and suburban yards, it's worse.

During this time -- once I got my power back -- I sent a lot of emails to friends and family affected by the hurricane including relatives in eastern Canada, where the storm was headed next. As it turned out, my relatives were not affected.

One of them, a budding birder, asked me in his response what happens to birds, particularly migrating birds, in a hurricane. He was not the only one who asked me that question. I guessed that, presuming the birds weren’t slammed into a building or tree, those stopped by the wind either hunkered down at the closest safe forest or pond until it was safe to proceed or traveled west to fly around the storm.

As it happened, New Jersey Audubon soon put out a press release on that very subject.

It says, in part:

The good news is that there is little evidence that the storm had a serious, direct impact on breeding or wintering bird populations. Late October falls right between that time when summer residents have migrated and most winter residents arrive.

(Well, that’s a relief.)

But it is almost certain that the flooding tides caused mortality among rodent populations, thus reducing the prey base for wintering birds of prey. New Jersey’s Atlantic and Delaware Bay marshes rank among the planet’s greatest winter raptor strongholds. This year, many Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Harrier, Short-eared and Long-eared Owls will be forced to move on and hope to find less affected areas to meet their food needs.

(So much for seeing Roughies or SEOs at the usual places this year.)

The storm also stripped much fruit and seed In woodlands, high winds stripped trees of fruit and seeds sending such wild bird staples as acorns, wild grape, poison ivy berries to for forest floor where snow or ice may put them out of reach. There may be an issue for cavity nesting species, like woodpeckers, if many of the dead standing trees went down in the storm. Importantly, if natural disasters become more frequent or are of greater magnitude, it may be beyond certain species ability to compensate and eventually recover.

I sent this press release to my relative, but I don’t know if it will comfort him all that much.

Sandy has upended everything. Weeks of leaves came down in a day. The irruption of winter finches from Canada that came over the border in search of food a month ago are now elsewhere in NJ, certainly not at my feeder, where the trees weren't felled and the seeds not destroyed. (Alot seem to be in center Jersey and points south, according to the reports.) Despite the NJ Audubon press release, I've had no problem finding raptors including redtails, harriers and accipiters, such as this Cooper's hawk that has been scaring birds away from my feeders.

This immature Cooper's hawk likes to scare the birds away
from the feeders but I've yet to see it catch anything.

The New York and New Jersey beaches where piping plovers, least terns and other endangered shorebirds nest are gone or vastly depleted. Like a shuffled deck of cards, birds normally found out at sea – scoters and pelagic birds, for instance – found temporary shelter in inland lakes and reservoirs – a delight for birders but a cause of concern for those of us who are noticing these “100-year storms” are becoming much more regular.

What is happening to the birds is dwarfed by what is happening to the people who live in New Jersey’s coastal communities, some of them for generations. I feel very sorry for these people (although not for those “summer people” who built their “cottages” on the dunes – an abomination in itself – and refused to allow protective dunes to block their view of the ocean. These towns, such as Holgate, were hit hardest.).

But as any sailor knows, the ocean giveth and the ocean taketh away. Towns are wondering how to rebuild in areas where no home should’ve been built in the first place. (There’s a reason they are called barrier islands.)

Will New Jersey heed Sandy’s warning? Will those who think they’ve “made it” by building a house with an ocean view understand that man is no match for Mother Nature? Will homes and roads on the overpopulated barrier islands be built to withstand the next Sandy?

Or will they be rebuilt the same as before in the name of expediency and getting things back to “normal”?

There’s always the option of not rebuilding and allowing nature to take its course. (That sound you just heard was the collective scream of every public official from Governor Christie on down.)

Won’t happen. Too much tourism and property tax money at stake.

But it will be a shame that the opportunity to rebuild smarter – or not at all – will likely be squandered. Until the next storm.

The birds don’t care. They never do. They will just go elsewhere to survive. New Jersey will be the poorer for it.

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