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Life on the Edge

By Roger Clay, Wildlife Biologist

The devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina on Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama were clearly evident on daily newscasts. Signs of the damage are still on display with piles of debris that wait for their ultimate removal. Naturally, our focus is on the human side but what of the effects of our wildlife species—particularly those creatures that live on the Gulf Coast?

Wildlife has faced hurricanes as long as there has been wildlife. Animals do not evacuate coastlines en masse as people do. Animals, for the most part, ride out the storm. They survive the storm or are killed by wind or water. For those animals that survive, the local environment may be quite different. Trees are blown down or damaged and flooding kills plants and alters landscapes. So long as the basic needs—food, cover, and water—are present, life goes on almost as normal for most creatures.

Shorebirds, birds that make their living near the coastline, seem especially prone to killing effects of hurricanes. Winds and waves do take their toll on brown pelicans, gulls, and terns. As waters become too rough to float upon and coastal flooding encroaches on loafing sites, these birds can take flight and seek more secure areas. After storms, these coastal birds may be seen inland loafing in agricultural fields and some even turn up at the northern end of the state.

Alabama's shorebirds are most vulnerable when nesting, which occurs along coastal beaches and islands. Most nest on the ground and all nest only yards from the shoreline making their nesting season a risky proposition every year. As the saying goes, “Timing is everything.” This could also apply to the nesting of shorebirds. Though the hurricane season officially begins June 1 each year, hurricane veterans of Alabama’s coastal communities know the season really heats up in August and September. Late May to the middle of June marks the peak of nesting with the most number of eggs in nests. By thetime August arrives, most of the shorebirds have wrapped up the nesting season as the young of theyearhave taken flight and are fending for themselves.

So, what was the most devastating hurricane of the 2005? It depends on your point of view. Clearly, Hurricane Katrina was the most damaging from the human perspective, but for the ground-nesting shorebirds, a couple of forgotten tropical storms of 2005 were just as damaging.

Two minor tropical storms, Arlene and Cindy, impacted coastal Alabama with minor flooding in June and July, respectively. Coastal beaches were already flattened from the impact of Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, thus exacerbating the flooding effects of Arlene and Cindy. Nesting colonies of shorebirds on Pelican Island and Dauphin Island in Mobile County were destroyed. Eggs and young were swept away by floodwaters. Right on the heels of Cindy came Hurricane Dennis on July 10 and at the end of August came Katrina, thus eliminating an entire nesting season for hundreds of pairs of Alabama’s colonial nesting shorebirds.

 

The 2005 hurricane season was one for the record books. Perhaps the only good to come out of these storms has been the cleaning of the coastal beaches of vegetation. Many of the shorebirds, terns and skimmers included, need relatively flat and vegetation-free areas for their nest scrapes and Alabama now has an abundance of flat, clear beaches.

For more information contact Roger Clay, Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, PO Box 247, Daphne, AL 36526.

 


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