Just two weeks after Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas, Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean and Florida, leaving severe damage at nature reserves and parks, killing many birds, and threatening the existence of endemic island species. Here’s what we know so far about its impact on birds and bird habitats.
Irma’s impact on birds
Irma left the island of Barbuda in ruins; about 95 percent of structures were destroyed or damaged, and nearly all residents were evacuated last week as Hurricane Jose threatened to hit. The fate of Barbuda Warbler, an endemic species that likely numbered less than 2,000 birds before Irma, is unknown.
Jeremy Ross, a scientist with the University of Oklahoma, wonders if Irma was an extinction-level event for the warbler.
Barbuda’s Codrington Lagoon, a RAMSAR-designated wetland and national park, was home to the largest colony of Magnificent Frigatebirds in the region (around 2,500 pairs). According to BirdsCaribbean, the lagoon “was breached during the storm and the sea has flowed in.”
“Thousands of birds must have perished,” said Andrew Dobson, president of BirdsCaribbean, in an article posted on Bernews.com.
Also unknown is the fate of the critically endangered Bahama Oriole. The species is found only on three islands in the Bahamas — North Andros, South Andros, and Mangrove Cay. In the 1990s, it disappeared from Abaco Island. Before the storm, the total population was estimated to be 140-260 birds.
This week’s powerful storm could be “a great setback” for conservation efforts for the endangered oriole, says Philip Tanimoto, international project officer with American Bird Conservancy. “This underscores the great need for establishing a second population of Bahama Oriole on Abaco Island, where the bird occurred until the 1990s.”
In Cuba, the storm killed thousands of flamingos at the Cayo Coco Cays, a site that until recently provided nesting habitat for one of the largest concentrations of American Flamingos anywhere.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that in Puerto Rico, “two employees hunkered down with endangered Puerto Rican Parrots high up in the El Yunque National Forest on the island’s eastern edge. The aviary, built a decade ago to withstand hurricane-force winds, suffered little. The parrots and their keepers rode out the storm in the aviary’s hurricane room.”
Irma’s impact on parks and refuges
The hurricane forced the closure of many birding sites and important bird areas.
Trees at Audubon Florida’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary fell on facilities, power lines, and several sections of the famed boardwalk. The sanctuary will be closed for at least two weeks while repairs are made. Other Audubon Florida closures include the Everglades Science Center and the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey.
Virgin Islands National Park on the island of St. John (Hotspot Near You No. 255) suffered extensive damage. Its visitor center is closed until further notice and all park programs are cancelled.
All national parks on the Florida peninsula, including Everglades, Dry Tortugas, and Biscayne, are closed to visitors.
Dozens of Florida state parks are also closed. See the full list.
On Tuesday morning, the Fish and Wildlife Service posted a state-by-state list of the impacts at national wildlife refuges. Among them: flooding at Big Cypress, downed trees at Ding Darling, and extensive damage in the Florida Keys.
The Florida Keys Hawk Watch, which is headquartered at Curry Hammock State Park, will likely not count raptors this migration season. This message was posted on the hawk watch’s Facebook page today:
“Be strong Florida Keys! Our thoughts are with all our friends and colleagues, particularly in the Middle Keys. Many dismaying news coming out of the Keys now. Our sites are not yet accessible. Sadly the area was ground zero for the hurricane’s impact. It is not likely we will continue migration monitoring this season. The road to reconstruction will be long. Our hearts go out to all affected by this storm, to our parks and wildlife.”
One bit of good news from the Florida Keys is that a CBS Miami reporter spotted four Key deer on Big Pine Key yesterday. The deer is a federally endangered species numbering fewer than 1,000 animals. A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson told The Scientist, “They are pretty good at protecting themselves. They have been on those Keys going back to the Wisconsin Ice Age, so they know what to do.” — Matt Mendenhall, Editor
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