There are lessons to learn after big storms like Hurricane Sandy plow through communities and ecosystems. Julie Wraithmell, director of wildlife conservation for Audubon Florida, offers insight into how extreme weather shapes bird habitat, and how to move forward post-storm.
Florida has seen its share of hurricanes and other big weather events. What's the worst that Audubon, and birds in general, experienced?
What is freshest in our memory is this past June’s Tropical Storm Debby. It ground slowly along Florida’s Gulf Coast for days at the height of nesting season, drowning chicks and nests along Florida’s entire Gulf Coast with storm surges and torrential rain. Wind-borne sand and seaweed also entombed chicks and eggs, while parent birds looked on helplessly. [For more on the damage Debby caused and how Audubon recovered, read Audubon Florida’s blog post here.]
What kind of rare birds have hurricanes blown in over the years?
Hurricanes in Florida always bring interesting birds, from Caribbean songbirds blown to the mainland of South Florida to tropical seabirds like magnificent frigatebirds, sooty terns and brown noddies throughout the state—even well inland.
What advice on rebuilding can you offer to members of the Audubon network who were affected by Hurricane Sandy?
After such a dramatic event, there is a tendency to want to engineer a solution to prevent a repeat occurrence. We need to be mindful that coastal habitats—barrier islands, estuaries, and more are inherently dynamic, shaped by wind, tides, and yes, storms. The smartest engineered solution we can embrace is one of mindful coastal planning—avoiding construction in the most vulnerable locations and preserving natural elements like dunes, shoals, and marshes that provide storm surge attenuation as well as essential habitat for some of our flyway’s most imperiled wildlife.
What long-term effects do you see on birds because of hurricanes?
I’m fond of saying that coastal birds are the anarchists of the bird world—they like nothing better than a good storm that causes overwash, erosion, and accretion resulting in new mudflats for foraging and broad expanses of un-vegetated sand for nesting and loafing. Barrier islands and coastlines are meant to move in storm events like these and many of the species that depend on coastal habitats have evolved to flourish in these storm-shaped habitats.
To protect the built environment, we often constrain our coasts with seawalls, jetties, groins, and levees. In places where the coast is unconstrained and habitat exists, we may actually see a revival of coastal birds in the breeding season following a storm event. [See Walker Golder’s post here.] However, in places where hardening makes it impossible for coastal habitats to shift, storms actually result in a loss of habitat—and often fuel additional armoring, a vicious cycle that degrades habitat and further imperils coastal wildlife.