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

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.

At the shore, the dunlin and sanderlings that rode out the storm were frantic in their foraging behavior, hardly paying attention to me at all as I walked Long Beach (an IBA), indicating to me that they are still feeling pretty stressed. I found a dead rusty blackbird washed up at Sandy Point in West Haven and saw photos of a dead northern gannet at Napatree Point. We’ll never really know the true direct effects on birds themselves. I haven’t been able to get to Menunketesuck Flats (an IBA) yet to see how the habitats or birds there fared, but there were still eight American oystercatchers there as of my last visit before the storm. 

Will the storm’s effects impact shorebird nesting in the spring?
Piping plover habitat was severely impacted. It’s too early to say if it was for better or for worse, but certainly our stewardship job just got a heck of a lot bigger for next year, as we will have to canvas the whole state to find the new nesting areas and will be very busy mitigating conflicts in the nesting season. The same goes for least terns, common terns, American oystercatchers (though the last two can nest on rocks). Impacts on migrant shorebirds like semipalmated sandpiper, sanderling, red knot are very difficult to assess at this point and would require multiple visits to the site at varying tide levels, and everything’s going to change before spring migration.
What’s Audubon doing on the ground right now? Is long-term restoration work going to be required?
We are trying to assess damage but have our hands full in attempting that. We are getting some reports from volunteers, but we have sometimes received conflicting information. Some restoration work will likely be required, but stewardship work, especially, will be the top priority in the short term for next season. In the mid-long term, we will be quite busy on the policy front as calls to harden shorelines rise to a roar. We will likely also have to keep an eye on plans to replant dune grass to be sure they don't adversely affect beach nesting bird habitats and assess where those birds will be nesting next year and if they’re at sufficient elevation to survive tidal flooding.

The Griswold Point (mentioned above; it’s a really key area) situation is tough to assess, as detachment may be a good thing because disturbance and predation would be reduced, but we really don’t know how elevations stood up. The above mentioned vulnerability of the Great Island Marsh is a long-term concern.

What kinds of emotions come up as you think about the damage and the recovery?
I’m really too concerned with assessing the impacts just now to think much about emotions, but there will certainly be conflicts between the impacts to beach birds and calls to harden shorelines to protect coastal property, and emotions are likely to run high on both sides as we move forward.

Given how well you know this area, what scenes have made an impression?
The interactions that stand out most are perhaps the side trip I took to see a saw-whet owl on one of my assessment trips, looking tranquil and unaffected tucked deep inside the cedars. Also the rather harried looking white-rump sandpiper (pretty darn rare in CT in November!) at Sandy Point in West Haven. The dead rusty blackbird was also a powerful moment. If there’s one species in North America that doesn’t need increased incidental mortality it’s rusty blackbirds. Also, seeing the frantically feeding sanderlings and dunlin at Long Beach West made me think of what those individual birds must have been going through at the height of the storm. My only storm bird per-se was a Bonaparte’s gull blown inland to Hannover Pond in my home town of Meriden, CT (thanks to Corrie for alerting me).

All in all, I can’t imagine the impacts to the south shore of Long Island and New Jersey are not orders of magnitudes worse.

Also, the climate issue is going to really heat up. To attribute any one meteorological event to climate change is pretty tricky, but in general, these are the types of things we should expect with increasing severity and frequency in a changing climate scenario, and they will be more damaging if sea levels continue to rise. People seem to have a sense that the weather has been a little harsh of late and are starting to expect the unexpected.  


This post was updated on November 7, 2012 at 11:05 p.m.

“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”