Saturday, December 14, 2019

A Hurricane’s Effect on Wildlife

Stepping Stones

Birds such as barred owls could have their nests decimated or destroyed by high winds causing a loss of life for a generation and possible relocation due to habitat loss.

Southwest Florida really dodged a bullet recently when Category 5 Hurricane Dorian swept northward after pummeling the Bahamas with heavy winds and torrential rains. Because of the always improving technology available to us humans, we were given ample warning to prepare or evacuate. Other members of the animal kingdom are not so fortunate.

High winds and rising water levels along the coastline can have a devastating effect on wild animals. Natural habitats can be changed for years and the surviving species living in them after a hurricane must adjust or perish. Because their ancestors have experienced similar weather phenomenon for thousands of years a few have already made adjustments.

For example, sea turtles nesting on our beaches may have devised a long term plan for survival of their species. Nesting females don’t lay three or four eggs, they produce about one hundred per nest. Additionally, one female might come ashore five, six, or seven times in a season at intervals of about two to three weeks and create new nests throughout the summer. With an incubation period of about fifty-five days they are spreading the hatching season over a period of time that might outwit nature’s tropical weather period.

Some marine animals must, unfortunately, fend for themselves. Manatees are vegetarians and eat the seagrass in the shallow waters of canals, rivers and lagoons. A tidal surge could push these gentle giants to areas that are not normally available to them and, as the waters recede, they can become trapped and unable to return to their regular habitat.

Storm surge from Hurricane Irma in 2017 cost several dolphins their lives as well. The force of the water may push them ashore and as those waves retreat these marine mammals can also be stranded or “beached,” with no chance of returning to the water.

Corals are living organisms and can be damaged in several ways. The force of the waves during a storm can bring debris and excess sand that can harm them. Additionally, as waters recede from land, the nutrients and chemicals that usually don’t make it to the waterways might lead to algae growth that could eventually cover an entire reef structure.

Photos by Bob McConville
| Both loggerhead and green sea turtles nest along our beaches. By creating several nests over a period of time, some hatchlings may escape the path of tropical storm and hurricane waters that might interrupt incubation.

As waters rise on land you might see a few critters that are not normally found in your neighborhood. Alligators can increase their roaming abilities in high waters in search of food, showing up in your driveway or back yard. Some snake species might also make an appearance in high waters.

Instincts being as keen as they are, many of our birds have adapted to tropical storm and hurricane possibilities and survive them well. Birds are sensitive to changes in barometric pressure and they know when a storm is coming. They will feed in advance of bad weather as a preparedness measure. Many will shelter in dense native vegetation or heavy shrubs for protection. The Ibis is the last bird to leave before a major storm and the first to return, acting as an indicator that the “coast is clear.”

During Hurricane Irma in 2017 there was concern that the endangered Key Deer, a sub species of the White Tail Deer, might suffer catastrophic losses with the extreme storm surge and rough winds. Standing only three feet tall, and only about 1,000 in total population, they fared well despite the odds against them but concerns about habitat loss and natural food supply in the near future will be a concern.

For many animals on land, the loss of habitat after severe weather is always a concern. Bird nests are blown from their perches. High waters make it impossible for some wading birds to feed in familiar areas. Dead trees that fall are the homes of woodpeckers, owls and bats and they, too, would be affected.

Once again, it is important to give thanks that Hurricane Dorian took the turn that it did. We didn’t just dodge a bullet, we dodged a cannonball. Hopefully ecosystems and wildlife along Dorian’s path to our north fare well. Be kind, Mother Nature, for life is already a difficult journey.

Bob is a Naturalist on board the dolphin survey vessel, Dolphin Explorer. He is the author of two books and is a regular speaker at venues throughout South Florida. Bob loves his wife very much!

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