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For Some Populations, Hurricanes Actually Help

The worst Atlantic coast storm in history, Hurricane Sandy, killed hundreds of people and destroyed more than half a million homes in 2012. But for some beach dwelling species, it was a net gain.  Endangered shore birds got a boost from the massive storm, thanks to a natural occurrence that’s been going on for millennia.

Nature’s beach remodeling project is as dependable as the tides. And when the big ones come along, the combination of water and wind is as beneficial to shore birds as it is devastating to buildings in their wake. “Many coastal species are adapted to thrive in these disturbed systems which is what they have done long before humans ever arrived and decided to develop our coast lines so much," says Katie Walker, a graduate student in Virginia Tech’s shorebirds program.

On New York’s Fire Island for the summer, she and her team are studying the Piping Plover, a sand colored bird with orange legs and what looks like a painted-on pair of black sunglasses.  Like young couples priced out of a hot real estate market, the birds saw their ocean front breeding grounds disappear amid a massive beachfront construction boom by humans, over the last several decades. Their numbers began to dwindle. So, in 1986 the Piping Plover was put on the Endangered Species list, which lead to their being studied and protected.

As part of studying the birds, they catch them and hold them for a few minutes so they can band them for later identification. And the Plover parents are not happy about it, “So they can either respond with the broken wing, ‘come for me’ display, or they might just get in your face” says Walker.

That broken wing thing is a ruse many shore birds use, but it’s all an act to say ‘hey look at me, I’m injured and weak so come over here and leave my chicks alone.'  And when the racoon or other land-based predator gets close, the birds fly up and away heading back to protect their nests. “They’re spunky birds" says Walker, and "they're determined parents who are territorial in their breeding grounds.”

But those territories are not terra firma.  Barrier islands like these, that sit beyond the mainland, are meant to move and shift due to ocean conditions, protecting the coast and creating what experts call ‘early successional habitats' for shore species.

Walker explains, “These areas of early successional (breeding grounds), where the ocean has recently washed over dunes, removing vegetation, those are regions that Piping Plovers like to use.  So,they nest in sparsely vegetated areas, wide open, dry sand flats and in time, following a disturbance that has over-washed the area, plants will come back and revegetate. It requires another disturbance event to wash that over and create that early successional (habitat) again".

So, when Hurricane sandy hit, it was a boon to the birds. Not only did new nesting areas open up, but all  that water recharged the ‘bay side’ behind the barrier islands, where maritime worms, insect larvae and crustaceans thrive. It was like opening a new seafood restaurant for birds. And because the Piping Plover was now on the endangered species list, when the Army Corps of Engineers worked to build back the beaches, they took the birds into account as well. “So that’s one of the benefits of being a listed species," says Walker,  "that these decisions have to be made. These coastal destabilization sare going to keep happening, but now we’re able to kind of do both,”repair the beaches and protect the birds.

But those benefits may not continue, this past Monday, August 12, 2019, the Department of the Interior announced significant changes to the 46-year-old Endangered Species Act that would weaken protections. According to published reports, the Trump administration says the act would be scaled back to focus on only the "rarest species."

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.
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