2017-09-21 / Nature

Storm-Tossed Birds Endangered by Hurricanes

By Charles Avenengo

The sandwich tern, above, and the skimmer, below, are examples of tropical birds swept-up by hurricanes and were deposited onto Aquidneck Island. (Photos by Bob Weaver) The sandwich tern, above, and the skimmer, below, are examples of tropical birds swept-up by hurricanes and were deposited onto Aquidneck Island. (Photos by Bob Weaver) When the worst hurricanes descend upon us, while thousands of people’s homes are still underwater and the death toll of human beings continues to climb, it can seem inappropriate to consider the impact of the hurricane on birds and other wildlife, but environmental damage is part of the tragedy.

Laura Erickson’s For the Birds

(Blog) lauraerickson.com

Hurricanes have a devastating effect on wildlife and birds.

On Barbuda, the island most affected by Hurricane Irma, ornithologists have speculated about the fate of a rare warbler with a population of only about 1,000.

“The likeliest victim of Irma, the endemic Barbuda warbler, could have been completely wiped out,” said Ronald Orenstein, a frequent contributor to the internet site, “BirdChat.” “I understand that little if any tree cover survived the hurricane. I realize that dealing with human suffering must be paramount, but I admit I would feel very relieved to hear news that the warbler had survived.”

Ornithologists are also worried about other species. Kirkland’s warbler, one of North America’s rarest songbirds with a limited wintering range in the southern Bahamas, is in danger, as is the Attwater greater prairie chickens whose home range was directly in the path of Hurricane Harvey’s onslaught. There are also concerns regarding a number of other fragile Caribbean species.

Currently, as the affected areas continue sorting out the human hardships, we await news of the fate of these birds.

Yet, even if individuals of these species survive, they still face an uncertain future due to reduced food sources. With flowers destroyed, hummingbirds along the Gulf Coast and Florida are frantically searching for food. Flooded leaflitter has become a problem for ground birds foraging on the forest floor. Also, diminished numbers expose small-population birds to the possibility of inbreeding, which could affect gene expression.

Historically, these major storms have not been kind to wildlife. Species have become extinct after getting pummeled by hurricanes. In Hawaii, a species of thrush called kama’o was extinguished after Hurricane Iniki in 1992. Likewise, four hurricanes that struck the Yucatan between 1998 and 2004 marked the demise of the Cozumal thrasher. Past hurricanes have also destroyed other animals. On a number of Bahamian Islands, whose elevation was less than three meters, storm surge from Hurricane Floyd in 1999 wiped out a species of anole lizards.

So, it’s currently a wait-and-see game.

A less tragic aspect of these hurricanes are displaced birds. When birds get trapped inside the eye of the hurricane while over the ocean, they seek refuge by continually flying around inside the eye. But as the storm passes over the coast, the exhausted birds land on solid ground, displaced many hundreds of miles from their normal haunts. Birders then investigate areas struck by hurricanes in search of these displaced birds, which include oceanic species like frigatebirds, tropicbirds, boobies, shearwaters, petrels, and a few types of tropical terns. All are species normally associated with tropical waters. After the storms pass, the birds usually work their way south again.

As Hurricane Irma swept north from Florida and weakened, it left a trail of misplaced birds in its wake. One was an exhausted black-capped petrel, picked up in a parking lot in Rome, Georgia. Blackcapped petrels nest high on cliffs in the remote mountains of Hispaniola and Cuba. During breeding season, they only come to these nests at night, spending the rest of their time at sea. Therefore, little is known about them. The only time they are found on the mainland is after hurricanes. Three more black-capped petrels were discovered inland in the wake of Irma, south of Atlanta, Georgia, in Tallahassee, Florida and in Tennessee.

In Rhode Island, there are only three land sightings of the black-capped petrel. Two were located in Point Judith in 1985 after Hurricane Gloria, and the third after Hurricane Bob in 1991.

Following virtually every major storm, Aquidneck Island also has recorded storm-blown birds. After Superstorm Sandy struck in late October 2012, one observer saw a brown pelican off Brenton Point State Park. After Hurricane Irene in 2011, southern species like sandwich terns and black skimmers were recorded from a number of locations on the island.

One bird-watching coup was accomplished during Hurricane Bob in August, 1991 when a daring birdwatcher viewed the storm from the lee of the Breakers Mansion. When the eye of the storm passed directly over Newport, he was rewarded with two bridled terns sitting on the lawn of the mansion. In nearly a century and a half of record-keeping, only a handful of records exist for this species in the state.

With this 2017 hurricane season, we could be the new home to quite a few displaced rarities, so now is the time to keep your eyes peeled.

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

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