Monday, October 19, 2020

Do Hurricanes Affect Our Bird Population?

Stepping Stones


I’m sitting at my desk, writing this article and looking at the wind and rain outside my window as tropical storm Alberto is passing by South Florida. Mother Nature…what are you doing? It’s not even June and you are throwing tropical rain conditions at us already! Be nice!!!

Some humans are still recovering from Hurricane Irma that made landfall on September 10th last year. A backlog of good help in a timely manner is causing some stress and fear regarding preparedness for the upcoming hurricane season, which is now upon us. It’s not just the humans that need to be concerned. Many species of our feathered friends are still in danger as well.

For birds, the lack of food and the loss of habitat could mean disaster for a full crop of hatchlings. Irma made landfall late in the season, so many summer nesters were spared devastation. However, one of the largest Bald Eagle nests in the area, along the Big Cypress boardwalk, was completely demolished and blown from its tree where it perched for more than 20 years. The saving grace was that this pair of eagles doesn’t nest until October or November and they diligently rebuilt a new nest not too far away. The results…two hatchlings.

Photos by Bob McConville | A flock of ibis forage for food in a shallow swamp area of the Everglades. As the water rises after a storm, they will be forced to find food elsewhere.

Along our shores, the least terns that come here all the way from South America had already produced and raised their young and were gone from the area by the time Irma got here. The north end of Tigertail Beach was one of the most successful least tern colonies in the state last summer and the terns are back here as we speak. Be kind to them this summer, Mother Nature.

In the center of the state the endangered snail kite lost all 44 of the known nests around Lake Okeechobee. The entire crop of hatchlings was lost in 2017.

That is not good news for a species whose numbers are already low.

A newly-hatched least tern gets its first look at life on Tigertail Beach. A mild summer storm season will help secure its survival.

Along the coastline birds of prey like eagles, ospreys, herons and pelicans had difficulty finding food. These species are referred to as “sight hunters,” using their eyes to locate fish as they fly overhead. When waters have been stirred up it was hard for them to locate their next meals. Also, runoff from a storm’s heavy rainfall dilutes the salinity of the water which could cause bait fish to flee to saltier areas. Larger fish follow bait fish and many birds of prey depend on larger fish.

On the east side of the Jolley Bridge there are three islands known to many as the ABC Islands. They are protected…no boats, kayaks or canoes are allowed close to this area without a permit. This is called a “Rookery” and is a safe haven for birds to come and nest, mate and raise their young. These mangrove islands were extremely lush until Hurricane Wilma came through several years ago, and I am told that the trees never fully returned to that full, shaded canopy of leaves. However it has continued to be an important nesting habitat since then.

When Irma came along the canopy was again decimated. As would be expected many birds left these islands when the storm hit. It was encouraging to see them back at this Rookery just days afterwards. But again, the treetops are very thin and there is concern that a lack of greenery might not provide sufficient protection from the sun for the young birds to survive. Time will tell.

A lack of food, a change in habitat and a loss of habitat could all be factors that determine a successful crop of young birds after a major storm. Many issues come into play regarding this scenario but, somehow, even a loss of young for a season or two doesn’t affect all of the bird species we find in Florida.

I’m sitting at my desk, writing this article and it is still raining and the winds have increased. How about it, Mother Nature…can you give our birds a break this year? Please?

Bob is an owner/operator of the Dolphin Explorer, a dolphin study team conducting eco-tours from Marco Island. He is also the author of two books, “Beyond The Mangrove Trees” and “Beneath The Emerald Waves,” which are available at local stores. Bob loves his wife very much!

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