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How Hurricane Florence may affect birds

Piping Plover, photo by Harry Collins

This morning, September 13, Hurricane Florence made landfall on the North Carolina coast as a large and dangerous Category 2 storm. If you’ve been following the news, you know that it is expected to cause widespread damage to the Southeast and bring torrential flooding to the region.

The likelihood of devastation to human lives and property is high, and we hope all of our readers who may be in its path have left the area or are taking all appropriate precautions.

Of course, hurricanes can have significant impacts on seabirds as well as migratory and resident birds. And longer term, they can affect bird habitats, including coastal parks and wildlife refuges. Today I asked Andrew Farnsworth, a research associate with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who is an expert in migration and migration forecasting with weather radar, about the various ways Florence may affect birds. Our conversation is below. — Matt Mendenhall, Editor

Satellite and radar showcasing Hurricane Florence, now a strong Category 2 storm on its approach towards the North Carolina coastline, as of approximately 9am EDT on 13 September 2018. Red line illustrates its historical track, and purple line and associated shaded area indicates the current forecast from the National Hurricane Center. SOURCE: Interactive Map in Thomson Reuters Eikon

BirdWatching: Which birds are likely to be most affected by the hurricane? Migrating songbirds and hummingbirds?

Farnsworth: It depends. Seabirds are the most directly affected in terms of their distribution, as these storms can deposit seabirds very far from their origins, including far inland. These birds probably represent small percentages of their total populations, so the impacts may not be terribly great from a population perspective. But from the individual bird’s perspective, dramatic impacts!

Migrant birds onshore and on land will likely attempt to ride out as much of the storm as possible. They certainly won’t fly unless disturbed and will attempt to take shelter. In the wake of the storm, large movements usually occur since birds hunker down for the duration of the storm’s rains and winds.


Resident birds may be affected significantly depending on what happens with habitat destruction and change post storm. See below…

Piping Plovers winter on the South Carolina coast. What could the impact be on them and their habitat?

Frankly, though it is hard to say, these storms that redistribute beach habitats and barrier islands’ sands may actually improve locally some habitats for species like this. However, destruction and loss of habitat is also a real possibility. Possible impacts could involve changing nonbreeding areas for species like Piping Plover, which may have costs depending on habitat quality, etc. Bottom line on all of this: We think we know what might happen but barely have the peer-reviewed science to start talking in detail about this.

What other shorebirds or waterbirds might be hard hit?

Any coastal wintering or migrant shorebirds may need either to adjust their habitat usage, take shelter, and actually in the case of some species orient after being entrained by the storm itself. So too other waterbirds, such as herons, ducks, and rails. All of these may see some displacement depending on the severity of the storm. Additionally, depending on the severity, some birds may escape when things get really bad or try to do that, rather than ride it out.


This storm seems to be in the migration path for Kirtland’s Warbler. Is that right? Or have these birds already made it to the Bahamas?

They will be arriving in the Bahamas probably a few weeks post-storm, thankfully. The storm does intersect their typical region of passage, but most of the individuals are likely still early in their migration trajectories. Some of the earliest individuals may approach the region of impact for the storm, but they are unlikely to get displaced or stuck in it.

And should we be concerned about Red-cockaded Woodpecker and its woodland habitats?

Possibly. Depending on the severity of the storm and the destruction of habitat, this is a possibility in coastal North Carolina and South Carolina. Thankfully the species has a broader distribution than simply this region if something cataclysmic were to happen. But nonetheless, local populations may see some impacts if nest trees are damaged.



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