Hurricane Sandy’s Impact on New Jersey’s Birds

This is a guest post by Eric Stiles of New Jersey Audubon Society.

As New Jersey was very literally in the eye of the storm, Hurricane Sandy’s impact upon the state was profound. Storm surge transformed many of our barrier islands and coastal marshes; pruning winds reconfigured forest tracts.

We all recognize the tragedy of the human costs of the storm, but some people have wondered how New Jersey’s birds and wildlife have been impacted by Sandy. What species were most affected? What are the long-term effects of coastal erosion or natural food stock reduction?

Black skimmers by Jack Rogers
The questions are apt, the answers still developing. Right now, we can only speculate on immediate and long-term impacts, though aerial surveys of shorebird foraging beaches and other assessments are underway. The main challenge will be ensuring that the future needs of birds and other wildlife are addressed as human recovery efforts move forward.

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

Foods, Forests and Finches

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 harriers, and short- and long-eared owls will be forced to move on and find less affected areas to meet their food needs.

Pine siskin by Robert Palmer
In woodlands, high winds stripped trees of fruit and seeds, sending wild bird staples such as acorns, wild grapes and poison ivy berries to the 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 dead, standing trees went down in the storm. Importantly, if natural disasters become more frequent or are of greater magnitude in the future, it may be beyond certain species’ ability to compensate and eventually recover.

As fortune has it, this year is marked by the largest influx of wintering northern finches to New Jersey in decades. Low natural food stocks have sent scores of pine siskins and purple finches—as well as red-breasted nuthatches, blue jays and evening grosbeaks—south in search of food. Homeowners can mitigate shortfalls caused by Sandy by feeding birds in their yards (and gain hours of entertainment in the process).

Coastal Habitat and Beach-Nesting Birds

The storm’s greatest potential concern may be its impact upon beach-nesting birds. In a wholly natural environment, coastal storms are part of the dynamic that creates the habitat needed by endangered, beach-nesting birds like the piping plover, least tern and black skimmer. But coastal habitat modified for human use may upset the balance of nature. As coastal communities rebuild, they and we will have to be mindful of the needs of wildlife.

Fortunately again, most beach-nesting species will not arrive until April, leaving months for planning and restoration. New Jersey Audubon will—as we always have—speak and act on the birds’ behalf. We’ll be monitoring their populations and working with our partners in the conservation community to ensure that Sandy’s legacy includes quality habitat for bird species to breed.

About the Author

Portrait by John Carno
Eric Stiles is president and CEO of New Jersey Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation’s Garden State affiliate. Since 1897, New Jersey Audubon Society has been connecting people and nature and stewarding the nature of today for the people of tomorrow.

For more on Hurricane Sandy’s impact on fish and wildlife, check out this blog post by Kevin Coyle, NWF’s vice president of education and training.


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