23 Aug 2014
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Irene's Impact: Big Storms Can Mean Opportunity for Nature

Hundreds of thousands of trees are down and shorelines are changed. What does this mean for wildlife?

Irene's Impact: Big Storms Can Mean Opportunity for Nature Irene's Impact: Big Storms Can Mean Opportunity for Nature

What humans see as disaster, nature just handles. Destruction can also mean rebirth. That’s the lesson foresters and wildlife scientists tell in the aftermath of tropical storm Irene.

Hundreds of thousands of trees fell or were damaged. No official tally exists yet. But one of the Connecticut state foresters, Emery Gluck, who oversees the sprawling tracts of Cockaponset State Forest, almost 16,000 acres in south-central Connecticut, said the damage he saw ranged from a few trees every acre to one every five acres. Branches or crowns of trees broke or bent. Trunks uprooted. In Cockaponset, Gluck said six roads closed until they could clear trees.

But tree cleanup, second nature for civilization, doesn’t usually benefit forests, Gluck said.

“I don’t think we should necessarily consider this a disaster in the ecological sense. This is a natural disturbance that occurs infrequently. It creates some ecological value. I’m incorporating natural disturbances in my management plan. We aren’t necessarily going to run out and salvage trees.”

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.

Swirling Masses of Bacteria

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection reported that so much rain fell during Irene that sewage overflows dumped debris and bacteria in the churning rivers and the Long Island Sound. Heavy rain often leads sewage treatment plants to go into shutdown mode, sending untreated sewage into the waterways. Bacteria levels went up; hypoxic (low oxygen) areas could increase, and the resulting death of microscopic water plants that feed fish is bad for those fish and naturally the birds that eat them.

All of the signs of civilization’s disarray such as knocked-out buoys and swamped boat ramps signal change and chaos nearby, for wildlife. But next season, these changes will open up larger areas of habitat for rare shore-nesting species such as piping plovers, said Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut.

Irene “was catastrophic for a lot of individual birds,” Comins said, but the struggling population of roseate terns on Cape Cod was spared this time because of the storm’s more westward path.

However, “Untold numbers of birds were blown off course or injured or killed by the storm,” he said. “It’s somewhat natural, along with the fact that some birds are in stressed situations regardless of the storm. That would make it harder for them to recover.” He said birds’ habitats have shrunk because of the developed areas.

Beach erosion after storms can, in some cases, add nesting habitat for shorebirds such as plovers and terns, Comins said. “Part of these birds’ biology is that they depend on these periodic disturbances,” he said.

Rare and Exciting Visitors

One fascinating outcome of Irene was the arrival of rare, sometimes tropical, birds to Connecticut. “We have had, between New York City and Connecticut, some of the best week’s birding on record — since the storm,” Comins said. Bird watchers 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.

Shore birds blew way inland, too. Nine species of terns found themselves in the farm fields of Storrs. They rode the storm and will try to find ponds or reservoirs to rest before heading back to find the fish they eat.

Comins said that birds know when storms are coming. “You will know this if you have chickens,” he said. “The wild birds were out coming to feeders en masse. They could probably feel the air pressure dropping.”

Birds and wildlife hunkered down during the storm. Not all of them made it. Comins noted he isn’t seeing tiger swallowtail butterflies, usually evident at this time of year. Irene probably also interfered with the migration of Monarch butterflies.

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