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

     Walker Golder. Photo: John Huba

North Carolina was at the southern limit of Sandy’s reach, but her wrath was still felt on the beaches as far south as Cape Fear, says Walker Golder, deputy state director of Audubon North Carolina. The storm surge overwashed the barrier islands and flooded low-lying areas, and in places it flattened dunes, uprooted vegetation, and scoured the beach. Here, Golder shares his perspective on how Sandy and other hurricanes affect birds, their habitat, and people. 

What are you seeing along the coast?

On Sunday, my son and I boated over to an undeveloped barrier island near our home. The undeveloped barrier islands are the best places to see the true impact of storms on the natural environment because they are usually unaltered by the impacts of people. We took our boat to Lea-Hutaff Island, an IBA and haven for coastal birds. Lea-Hutaff Island is near the southern limit of Sandy’s impact, but the effect of the storm surge was visible on the beach. The primary dune line had eroded; it was breached in some areas. You could see where water flowed across the barrier island taking sand and vegetation with it. Some dunes more than eight feet tall were flattened and reduced to bare, flat sand. The clock of vegetation succession was turned back to zero.


The birds were there and seemed no worse for the experience. Brown pelicans, northern gannets, and royal terns were diving on schools of baitfish form above and pods of Bottle-nosed dolphins were feeding on baitfish from below. Laughing gulls, herring gulls, and great black-backed gulls in their usual habitats. Black skimmers that stage around North Carolina inlets in great numbers were loafing on exposed sand bars. And the shorebirds, sanderlings, American oystercatchers, short-billed dowitchers, piping plovers, western sandpipers, willets, and other shorebirds were flying south down the beach and at their high tide roosts waiting for the tide to fall and expose foraging habitat.


Black skimmer and chick. Photo: Matthew Paulson/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


What kinds of birds depend on North Carolina’s shores?

Hurricanes rarely occur during the nesting season. This is a product of evolution. The nesting season had long since ended when Sandy moved up the coast.


October is a time when many coastal birds are migrating along the coast.  The peak of migration for some species, least terns and piping plovers, for example, had passed when Sandy was churning along the coast. Other species, such as oystercatchers, sanderlings, and black skimmers, were still on the move. More than 150 species of birds use the immediate coastline of North Carolina during October and most—probably all—felt the effects of Sandy. 


Tell us about how the storm has affected those animals in the short-term, and what the long-term impacts might be.

I am always amazed at the resilience of coastal birds during a storm such as Sandy. They are survivors. It is hard to know exactly how they ride out the storm and where they go during the storm, it’s difficult to study, but it appears that most make it through just fine. In all likelihood, they seek shelter wherever they can to avoid having to endure the direct impact of the strong winds and rain; they likely seek shelter on the leeward side of anything they can find and they move as the wind changes direction.  Some birds get blown way off course during migration and may find themselves far out of their range and without the food and foraging habitat they need to survive. Some are physically injured or killed during a storm. But most birds that are in good condition probably survive. We see very little mortality. High quality habitats for birds are essential. Those birds in poor condition have the toughest time (speculation on my part). But those in good condition, largely because they have found high quality habitat with adequate food and little disturbance, can survive the storm.


Pollution from oil, gas, and other contaminants is another issue. The impact from contaminants is unknown and it will take a while to sort out.


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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