Sunday, September 24, 2017

Wildlife weathering the storm

It may not be the smartest activity, but hurricane season provides a unique opportunity to make exciting wildlife observations. Just as surfers tend to head for the beach during major storms – because that’s when the increasing waves offer an especially fun and challenging ride – those who enjoy watching birds often flock to the coast during and after hurricanes to look for rare species blown into the region on the powerful winds.
I can’t imagine what it’s like for a gull or other coastal bird to get pulled into the vortex of a hurricane near Cuba or Haiti and be unable to get out until they had traveled more than a
thousand miles. But it happens every year. It must be a traumatic experience, not to mention exhausting.
But there are few opportunities more enticing to a birder than to stand at a prominent coastal site and scan the horizon for a mega-rarity during a hurricane. It really gets the juices flowing.
Not that I’ve ever actually done it, however.
I worked for the electric company for 13 of my most obsessive birdwatching years, so when all my friends were headed to Point Judith or Beavertail or Brenton Point to watch for birds, I had to go to work. Which means that I missed out on seeing innumerable tropical birds make landfall along the Rhode Island coastline.
Bridled terns from Florida, brown boobies from the West Indies, brown pelicans from the Carolinas, and magnificent frigatebirds from the Caribbean have all turned up on southern New England beaches during especially powerful storms, and I missed them all. While I was working without sleep for days at a time as the electricity was being restored, my birding friends were making the avian observations of a lifetime.
Of course, coastal birds aren’t the only wildlife affected by hurricanes. Our local resident species can face devastation, too.  Fish, crabs and other marine creatures, for instance, can be thrown onto shore by waves and storm surge and become stranded. Beach plants are often ripped from the dunes by the winds or covered in sand. Animals that raise their young in trees, like squirrels, bats and raccoons, can have their homes uprooted and destroyed. Ground-dwelling creatures like opossums, skunks and chipmunks often drown in floodwaters.
Those that survive may find it difficult to find food because local berries have been torn from their bushes, insects have been smashed or drowned, and seeds have become moldy and unfit for eating. As difficult as it is for humans to weather a severe storm, our native wildlife has it even harder.
As a result, it’s a busy time for local wildlife rehabilitators, who are committed to rescuing injured or abandoned animals. One rehabilitator told me that it’s not uncommon for Rhode Islanders to deliver 100 baby squirrels to raise in the days after a hurricane because their nest trees have been knocked down.
It may take a while before normal wildlife activity resumes after a hurricane. Some species may have moved far inland to avoid the storm; others may seek new habitat if their former territory is damaged; and still others remain hunkered down for days or weeks as they recover from the stress of the storm.
In other words, they behave like most of the rest of us – happy that it’s over and thankful to have survived.

This article first appeared in The Independent on September 21, 2017.

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