L T H O U G H M O S T P E O P L E
associate the beach with gulls, there are many
more bird species that are found in southeast-ern
North Carolina. Most species of shorebirds
— sandpipers, plovers, and their relatives — nest in the far
north, as far as the Arctic, and winter in the south, anywhere
from the mid-Atlantic coast of the U.S. to South America,”
Addison says. “They depend on coastal habitats, especially
inlets, for places to forage and rest on their long migrations.
Without these habitats, they would not be able to survive to
reach their breeding and winter grounds.”
These crucial habitats have become increasingly threatened
as hurricanes like Florence have barreled through the region,
displacing birds and disrupting food supplies. Birds and hur-ricanes
have coexisted for millenia in an annual life-and-death
struggle, and survival has never come easy for birds, be they
migratory land birds, shorebirds or birds that spend most of
their time over open water.
“Pelagic seabirds that usually occur far out at sea ended
up on inland lakes as far away as Raleigh and Greensboro,”
Golder says. “After Florence, there was a Trindade petrel near
Raleigh; a brown pelican that should have been on the coast
was seen near Burlington. After Hurricane Matthew, there
was a flamingo (likely from Cuba or the Bahamas) on the
coast of S.C.,” Golder says. “During Florence, many black
skimmers that are usually around area inlets moved inland
and were reported in odd places, like on area roads, highways
and overpasses and unfortunately, some were hit by cars. I
observed a skimmer flying down the center lane of Market
Street and counted 14 dead skimmers in the vicinity of the
17-140 overpass in Porters Neck.”
While a hurricane is still over the ocean, birds will often
seek shelter in the eye and keep flying inside of it until the
storm passes over the coast, where they will take refuge on
land. It is also why birders flock to areas struck by hurricanes
— the storms provide an opportunity to spot species in places
where they are not supposed to be.
“Over the ocean, hurricanes can affect migrating birds by
directly impacting them when the birds get caught in them.
These birds can end up being carried off-course by hundreds
of miles and show up in unusual places as a result,” Addison
says. “Other birds at sea might be forced to fly around them, as
in the case of a whimbrel that was being tracked with satellites
and detoured hundreds of miles.”
Birds, however, are remarkably resilient, and they will find
ways to shield themselves from the wind and rain, seeking
shelter on the lee side of trees or buildings, in shrubbery, or
anywhere they can.
“They don’t have the Weather Channel and they really don’t
know how strong or large a storm might be. But they can
detect changes in barometric pressure and studies have shown
that they increase food intake in response to declining pressure.
From top: A Western sandpiper forages at Figure Eight Island.
Black skimmers at Mason Inlet. A Hooded merganser pair, male
in foreground, female in background.
They’re also good at finding small patches of habitat and food,
but there is a lot that we don’t know about birds’ ability to
cope with storms,” Golder says.
With that said, they have to have the habitat to sustain
themselves and recover from major events like hurricanes.
Sometimes, however, it is less about coping with storms and
more about finding the specific habitat they need. Least
terns, black skimmers and some shorebirds, for example, need
open, bare or sparsely vegetated sandy or sand-shell habitat
for nesting. This habitat is created by overwash — when
storm-induced waves exceed the height of the dune, sand is
transported over the top of the dune and deposited inland and
this process, known as overwash, causes a significant change in
WBM january 2019
WALKER GOLDER LINDSAY ADDISON LINDSAY ADDISON