Hurricane Sandy Update From the Field: Coastal Birds Show Survival Skills in North Carolina

Hurricane Sandy Update From the Field: Coastal Birds Show Survival Skills in North Carolina

Alisa Opar
Published: 11/06/2012

     Walker Golder. Photo: John Huba

North Carolina was at the southern limit of Sandy’s reach, but her wrath was still felt on the beaches as far south as Cape Fear, says Walker Golder, deputy state director of Audubon North Carolina. The storm surge overwashed the barrier islands and flooded low-lying areas, and in places it flattened dunes, uprooted vegetation, and scoured the beach. Here, Golder shares his perspective on how Sandy and other hurricanes affect birds, their habitat, and people. 

What are you seeing along the coast?

On Sunday, my son and I boated over to an undeveloped barrier island near our home. The undeveloped barrier islands are the best places to see the true impact of storms on the natural environment because they are usually unaltered by the impacts of people. We took our boat to Lea-Hutaff Island, an IBA and haven for coastal birds. Lea-Hutaff Island is near the southern limit of Sandy’s impact, but the effect of the storm surge was visible on the beach. The primary dune line had eroded; it was breached in some areas. You could see where water flowed across the barrier island taking sand and vegetation with it. Some dunes more than eight feet tall were flattened and reduced to bare, flat sand. The clock of vegetation succession was turned back to zero.


The birds were there and seemed no worse for the experience. Brown pelicans, northern gannets, and royal terns were diving on schools of baitfish form above and pods of Bottle-nosed dolphins were feeding on baitfish from below. Laughing gulls, herring gulls, and great black-backed gulls in their usual habitats. Black skimmers that stage around North Carolina inlets in great numbers were loafing on exposed sand bars. And the shorebirds, sanderlings, American oystercatchers, short-billed dowitchers, piping plovers, western sandpipers, willets, and other shorebirds were flying south down the beach and at their high tide roosts waiting for the tide to fall and expose foraging habitat.


Black skimmer and chick. Photo: Matthew Paulson/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


What kinds of birds depend on North Carolina’s shores?

Hurricanes rarely occur during the nesting season. This is a product of evolution. The nesting season had long since ended when Sandy moved up the coast.


October is a time when many coastal birds are migrating along the coast.  The peak of migration for some species, least terns and piping plovers, for example, had passed when Sandy was churning along the coast. Other species, such as oystercatchers, sanderlings, and black skimmers, were still on the move. More than 150 species of birds use the immediate coastline of North Carolina during October and most—probably all—felt the effects of Sandy. 


Tell us about how the storm has affected those animals in the short-term, and what the long-term impacts might be.

I am always amazed at the resilience of coastal birds during a storm such as Sandy. They are survivors. It is hard to know exactly how they ride out the storm and where they go during the storm, it’s difficult to study, but it appears that most make it through just fine. In all likelihood, they seek shelter wherever they can to avoid having to endure the direct impact of the strong winds and rain; they likely seek shelter on the leeward side of anything they can find and they move as the wind changes direction.  Some birds get blown way off course during migration and may find themselves far out of their range and without the food and foraging habitat they need to survive. Some are physically injured or killed during a storm. But most birds that are in good condition probably survive. We see very little mortality. High quality habitats for birds are essential. Those birds in poor condition have the toughest time (speculation on my part). But those in good condition, largely because they have found high quality habitat with adequate food and little disturbance, can survive the storm.


Pollution from oil, gas, and other contaminants is another issue. The impact from contaminants is unknown and it will take a while to sort out.


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