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Seabirds are OK despite the ferocity and storm surge of Hurricane Ian

Seven pelican were returned to the wild after recovering from a mysterious illness.
City of St. Petersburg
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Seven pelican were returned to the wild after recovering from a mysterious illness.

Research shows many birds species jump into literal flight or fight mode when a hurricane is coming.

Bird watchers in Southwest Florida are a passionate group and two months after Hurricane Ian, when they don’t see as many of their favorites, birders are worrying that such a huge storm has simply blown birds aside, killing or maiming them on a species-wide scale.

“Initially, we noticed some of the numbers were down for our seabirds,” said Audrey Albrecht, a shorebird biologist with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. “But what we've discovered is that they're just actually in different places.”

The survival capabilities of shorebirds are extraordinary. Whether due to the changes in barometric pressure, storm clouds causing darkness during daylight hours, or other reasons ornithologists don’t understand, research shows many birds species jump into literal flight or fight mode when a hurricane is coming.

Many birds sense impending doom when a big storm rolls in and they either tuck in somewhere safe, or fly away. Other avian species are strong enough to best even hurricane-force winds, fly right through them, and live to squawk about it.

It’s inevitable that some members of most every species will die, including human beings, when a slow-moving hurricane with 150-mph winds, a 12-foot storm surge, and several feet of driving rain makes landfall in the front yard.

For humans and birds alike the disruptions can be significant but ultimately are temporary, and for now the biggest problems researchers from the SCCF see is a lack of housing – for the birds.

Denise Blough, of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, said brown pelican counts since Hurricane Ian have gone from the low-to-mid triple digits during the last few years to the mid-double digits now, but that doesn’t mean anything horrible happened to the birds.

“A number of trees that a large number of brown pelicans usually roost in on Sanibel are now gone due to the storm,” Blough said. “That said, there are various factors that can play into declines, and not may be fully attributable to Hurricane Ian.”

Albrecht, too, has seen first-hand the tall pine trees favored by brown pelicans were felled by Ian.

“On Sanibel, we would often have large numbers of brown pelicans roosting in the large Australian pines and … the storm did knock down a lot of those trees,” she said. “I don't believe that the birds are gone. I think they're just having to adapt and find new places. We will just keep an eye on that and see where they go.”

‘It’s too early to tell’

The Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, better known as CROW, is a Sanibel Island-based teaching hospital and visitor education center dedicated to saving wildlife. Each year, CROW cares for more than 5,000 sick or injured animals in its veterinary hospital, which is one of the nation’s leading facilities for native and migratory wildlife.

Robin Bast, a CROW veterinarian, said pelicans and other seabird populations are fine, they just may not want to hang out around Lee County for now.

"We have admitted several brown pelicans since the storm, so I know they're still in the area,” she said. “Also, Ding Darling (National Wildlife Refuge) posted online that the white pelicans have arrived in the area as well.

“I think the effects will be somewhat species-dependent and it's too early to tell what those effects will be,” Bast said. “It wouldn't surprise me if some of the migrating birds end up bypassing the area or not spending as much time here."

For example, biologists at Audubon’s Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuaries in the Tampa Bay region are reporting a noticeable increase in shorebirds in their area, which they think is a result of birds from here that flew there to get away from Ian and have yet to return.

Of course, a happy ending is not in store for every avian species in Southwest Florida, as Carly Jones from the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute said.

“We have received reports of several brown pelican carcasses in that area,” Jones said. “We will be testing samples for Avian influenza and hope to have preliminary results sometime next week.”

‘A tricky task’

Wildlife biologists are making strides in understanding how birds, smaller fish, and sharks can sense when a big storm or hurricane is on the way and that the animals have adapted to take protective measures to keep themselves alive.

Writing in Hakai magazine, which focuses on the intersection of society and science along the coast, journalist Jenny Howard wrote the following:

“Studying how birds behave during hurricanes is a tricky task. Usually, the aftermath of the storm draws the most attention, like how 2017’s Hurricane Maria killed half of Puerto Rico’s namesake parrots. Or how birds end up hundreds of kilometers off course or away from home. But advances in technology, including miniature GPS trackers, have made it possible to study animal behavior during these storms.”

Howard highlighted a doctoral student’s unintended good luck when Hurricane Irma was raking the Atlantic coast of the United States in 2017. The student, Bradley Wilkinson of Clemson University in South Carolina, had put GPS trackers on 18 brown pelicans to discover where they forage for food – but realized he may be able to answer a far more elusive question: what do pelicans do to survive a hurricane?

Wilkinson found that the low air pressure and high winds that move in as hurricanes approach drive pelicans to take refuge in estuaries, hide behind barrier islands, or under highway overpasses.

“Previous studies suggest some birds, like sparrows, can sense changes in barometric pressure and adjust their behavior, Patrick Jodice, a wildlife biologist at Clemson University and coauthor of the new study, told Howard. “This gives birds time to seek shelter ahead of damaging winds.

“In other cases, weather radar shows birds in the storm’s eye, possibly a safer place to avoid the dangerous hurricane winds. The pelicans weathered the storm by staying put close to their summer breeding sites along the South Carolina coast, but they also moved behind barrier islands to hide and avoid the storm. An alternative strategy—flying hundreds of kilometers to avoid a storm— could waste a lot of energy.”

Watching from the attic

One local pair of American bald eagle’s spared no time or energy rebuilding their nest in North Fort Myers after Hurricane Ian. Within weeks of the storm’s end they rebuilt their nest and moved right back in.

Turns out it had nothing to do with being homesick: the female, named Harriet, laid her first egg, while the father bald eagle, named M15, patrolled over the blessed moment from an area of the nest named the attic.

That, is bird watching.

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health.

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Tom Bayles