After Hurricane Sandy blasted the Northeast this past October, our editors asked experts around the Audubon network to weigh in on the storm’s immediate effects, and to reflect on ways that extreme weather in general can influence birds and their environment. (Their responses, encapsulated below, are on our blog, The Perch.) Their conclusion may well surprise some: While big storms wreak human and ecological havoc, they can also shape habitat in ways that benefit birds.
For instance, trees killed in storms are prime real estate for insects, which in turn appeal to birds like woodpeckers, according to Melanie Driscoll, director of bird conservation for the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi Flyway. Standing dead trees can eventually develop cavities important for nesting. Felled or damaged trees open forest canopies, inviting sunlight that fosters the shrubby undergrowth preferred by such birds as golden-winged warblers, an Audubon priority species, or Swainson’s warblers.
Storm surges erode coastal habitat, stripping vegetation relied on by such species as reddish egrets, another Audubon priority species. But they also flush sand elsewhere in the form of “overwash fans,” which provide important foraging and nesting grounds for priority birds like the endangered piping plover. An absence of vegetation deters mammalian predators, too, according to Walker Golder, deputy state director for Audubon North Carolina. In fact, “in the nesting season that follows a severe storm like Sandy, nesting productivity generally improves.” This effect, he says, can last a decade.
More worrisome is how humans alter our shorelines. “It is important in our coastal planning to allow for shifts in habitat by not building too intensively in coastal areas,” says Driscoll. “Such flexibility is increasingly important in this time of sea-level rise and climate change.” Dredging and beach replenishment projects, hard structures like jetties, and other coastal engineering can harm species, adds Golder. “Birds can survive these storms, but they can’t persist if the habitat they depend on is permanently lost.”
This story originally ran in the January-February 2013 issue as “Silver Linings.”