Riders in the Storm

Nature's Notebook
Recent heavy rain has affected birds and other wildlife. Photo by Cynthia Hochswender

As our area and communities around us continue to recover from wind and water damage caused by recent storms, there have been many questions regarding how these weather events have affected wildlife and how birds and other wildlife cope with high winds and 9 to 11 inches of rain all at once.

From a birder’s perspective, Irene was an exciting time. It may have produced the biggest single day in the state’s birding history for discovery of rare and sometimes tropical species, particularly for birders on the Connecticut coast. Birds that would normally stay out at sea or be found in southern locations were blown off course. “We have had, between New York City and Connecticut, some of the best week’s birding on record since the storm,” said Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut. Birders at Milford Point viewed the first ever band-rumped storm petrel in Connecticut. These birds usually stay in North Carolina and further south. They also saw a brown pelican, a black-necked Stilt and an American avocet.

Areas inland had their share of unusual shorebirds as well. Six species of terns ended up in the farm fields of Storrs, least, black, common, Forster’s, sooty, and Caspian. Add in roseate, bull-billed, royal, skimmer and bridled seen in other areas and we had 11 species of terns in the state that week! Closer to home, Fran Zygmont, president of the Litchfield Hills Audubon Society, spotted a Leach’s storm-petrel on Bantam Lake. These birds are usually found a hundred miles out in the open ocean, not in an inland freshwater lake.

Certainly these types of events can have a deleterious effect on individual birds and perhaps even populations if the specific species is already suffering from other stressors such as loss of habitat or pesticides. Being blown hundreds of miles off course can take its toll especially for migratory birds that are on a timetable and need to get to their wintering grounds before their fat reserves run out. Indeed there were many reports of unusual birds that were found dead or injured.

Other types of wildlife were impacted as well. I read recently that wildlife rehabilitators are now overwhelmed by the number of orphaned baby squirrels they’re caring for. Squirrels were raising their second litter when Irene hit and many of the young were washed out of their nests. This is an impact from the storm but one that will not affect the squirrel population. There is also some concern about butterflies as this is not only a critical time in their life-cycle but also within the migratory period of monarch butterflies.

Although floods do cause some deaths, in most areas birds, mammals and other ground-dwelling animals take shelter or move out of low-lying areas, and we received many reports of wandering raccoons and opossums during and after the storm.

Fish were also impacted. According to the North American Wildlife website, among the hardest hit wildlife by Hurricane Irene were freshwater trout in the smaller brooks and streams of New England. After flood waters receded, residents reported finding stranded trout in yards, basements and other locations.

Although there are certainly some immediate negative consequences for wildlife as a result of severe storms, there are some positive aspects as well. Downed trees open areas of the forest for ground-nesters like ruffed grouse and provide cover and food for everything from small mammals and rodents to insects and fungi. Areas of habitat that have been destroyed or damaged will green up next spring and provide foraging areas for birds and other wildlife and habitat for a new suite of animals. Small wetlands and ponds that would normally be dry this time of year now are full of water just in time to be used for stopover points for ducks, geese and shorebirds during their migration south.

These effects are natural in a system that is constantly changing yet interconnected. So as we and our friends to our north and south clean up from two of the worst storms in recent memory, keep an eye peeled to those waterlogged ponds, fields and forests — you may just see something new!

Scott Heth, director of Audubon Sharon, may be reached at sheth@audubon.org (subject line: Nature Notes).