Duck Hunting photo

While much of the coastal northeast U.S. is still digging out of Hurricane Sandy’s damage – or just waiting for the lights to come on – biologists are starting to look at the super-storm’s impact on wildlife habitat and migratory bird patterns.

Despite a highy developed shoreline, the New Jersey coast–which was slammed by Sandy–is important waterfowl habitat. There are large swatches of natural areas, such as the 40,000-acre Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. You can see part of it in the photo above, in which a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service employee is inspecting a stranded boat after the hurricane.

The state is a wintering ground for 70 percent of the country’s Atlantic brant. Scoter, eider, long-tailed ducks, blacks and other waterfowl winter in the Garden State, while many other species stop over on trips farther south.

“Brant are very specific in their feeding habits,” said Avery Pro Staffer Bryn Witmier. “They rely on eelgrass as their primary source of food, and if the eelgrass beds were scoured by the storm and unavailable it could be disastrous for the population.”

Saltwater or marine eelgrass grows off tidal bottoms in long, dense grass-like stands. Boaters often find it when it tangles a prop. In some places eelgrass can grow thick enough to stop a sailboat. It’s common along the northeast and mid-Atlantic coast, but is only found in New Jersey in Barnegat Bay. Brant feed on eelgrass when the tide is low and coastal hunters know to setup near the long dark beds when sunrise overlaps the low tide.

“In general eelgrass is pretty good at surviving, just because it’s submerged from the high waves and protected behind the barrier islands,” said Paul Bologna, director of aquatic and coastal sciences at Montclair State University, who’s studied the plant for years. “I’m hopeful the beds are doing okay, but without seeing it first hand, it’s hard to say.”

Sediment collection – the build up of sand and mud from the heavy rains and storm surge – can also kill off eelgrass, along with shellfish beds, Bologna said. But Sandy didn’t drop as much rain as was expected, leaving just over eight inches in Atlantic City and Cape May. “Irene pumped 12 to 15 inches, which had much more runoff potential, and the eelgrass made it through okay,” Bologna said.

Saltwater marsh erosion is another major concern. Ducks, geese and dozens of shorebirds feed on spartina and other grass along the coast. Many of those marshes, if not damaged with breached dykes and retaining walls, are underwater, completely inundated and washed out. Yet the scale of the damage in the hardest hit areas – New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut, Rhode Island – is so far too hard to tell.

“It’s going to take some time,” said Ted Nichols, waterfowl biologist with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. There are reports of filled basins, breached impoundments and broken dykes across the state, he said, but it’s too soon to tally marshes lost and flats gained. “We don’t have a whole lot of eelgrass left and Monmouth County and Barnegat Bay and those areas were harmed the most,” he said. “Lot of waterfowl impoundments took it on the chin. Lots of dams and dykes broke and burst, so we’re literally trying to get our fingers in the dams.”

“Before man was here and put up pipes, and piers, and dykes and developed barrier islands, coastlines were the most dynamic places on earth,” he said. “With any kind of change there will be winners and losers.”

On the upside, there were no reported die-offs of migratory birds or other wildlife. Nicholas watched a large group of seaducks fly down a tidal river on the first tide looking for food Tuesday morning, immediately after the storm subsided. “For the birds, a real severe cold front that lasts 15 days could be a lot more stressful than what they just went through with Sandy.”

Farther south, Sandy dealt less damage, leaving behind more positives than negatives. “I think it helped us,” said Gary Costianzo, migratory game bird scientist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “It filled basins, filled impoundments in the wildlife management areas and the ground soaked up a lot of water. In terms of erosion and damage, we have some on the coastline and barrier islands, but it’s not bad compared to up north. The marshes are fine.” Virginia averaged around eight inches of rain, with a high of 9.9 inches in Reedville on the Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland, like much of the country, has suffered a drought through summer and early fall. Now the basins are full or nearly full–some by rain, some by high tides, storm surge and flooding. “We now have a lot more duck habitat,” said Larry Hyman, the waterfowl project leader with Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “Some places have water going over top of impoundment dykes, but we’ve been lucky so far. Flood stage has been 4.5 feet above knee high water.” Sediment collection on grass and oyster beds could be the big downside on the Chesapeake, but it’s too soon to tell.

The drought weather combined with the recent rains could make excellent feeding conditions for dabblers, said Sarah Fleming, New York State biologist for Ducks Unlimited. “The low water levels throughout the summer allowed for an abundant growth of natural foods in wetland basins that will become available if they fill with rainwater. The forecast calls for more rain over the next four days as Sandy moves through.”

Aside from habitat concerns, little is known about how birds themselves weather a hurricane. Birders have long known that exotic species can be found before and after storms. So far this week there have been reports of Atlantic brant, scoter and eider as far west of Ohio, near Lake Erie. (There were fewer than five eiders on record in Ohio before Sandy.) Few telemetry studies have been done on migrating birds in foul weather, but teams at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service are working to change that.

Thursday before the storm, scientists in Cape May County, New Jersey outfitted five migrating woodcock with backpack receivers. A week later three were still there. It’s unclear whether the other two migrated south or died in the storm, said Chris Dwyer, migratory game bird biologist, with U.S. Fish & Wildlife. The study is in its third year, and while no findings are yet conclusive, it seems to suggest birds hunker down with a high rate of survivability.

“Birds are very adaptable,” Dwyer said. “They hunker down, turn back or move through. It’s easy for them to pickup and move.”

In another study, biologists are tracking surf scoter, northern gannets and red-throat loon migrations with satellite receivers. Sponsored by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the aim is to map migration routes so future offshore wind turbines don’t interfere. “It’s been real interesting with the hurricane, because a lot of them have been migrating,” said Caleb Spiegel, wildlife biologist with U.S. Fish & Wildlife.

The surf scoters beat the storm, but their timing was uncanny. Last week they were on their molting grounds in the Canadian arctic and in a matter of days made it to the New Jersey coast while Sandy was out at sea, before it curved in to clobber the mid-Atlantic. They just beat it,” Spiegel said. “They got around the storm and moved south.” Because the timing is similar to last year’s migration, it can’t be said positively that the birds sensed the storm and got out of Dodge. But the time frame breaks down to hours, not days.

Damages in federal east coast refuge systems haven’t yet been tallied yet, Spiegel said. The agencies emphasis has been on assisting human recovery efforts, but scientists are hoping for the best and prepping for the worst.

“This is a complicated inaction of a huge natural event with human development on the coast, it’s a tragedy for the people down there of course, but there’s also real consequences for the wildlife that call the shore home,” Spiegel said.

In the days before Sandy made landfall, reports of huge rafts of birds from New Hampshire to Virginia came across my desk. A thousand mallards and 500 geese in a New Hampshire cornfield. Thousands more geese within a mile of each other on a loose network of fields in eastern Connecticut. Waves, and waves of brant and seaducks off Rhode Island and into Long Island. Those who were able to hunt, did well.

“Birds aren’t stupid. They could tell a storm was coming and wanted into the cornfields bad,” said Ray Jackson of Badfish Decoys, who hunted the Monday before the storm. “I could have gotten my limit, but I only brought 12 shells. The birds were cooperative and came right into the decoys.”

Whether the birds yard up because they sense a storm, or whether higher numbers are simply due to the migration, scientists can’t say for sure. But with a cold front expected to drop average temperatures by 10 degrees down much of the Atlantic flyway next week, the hunting will likely stay good.

On the Rhode Island coast, where I’ve been without power since Monday – and don’t plan on getting it back for at least a week – it’s a good time to be off the grid. Unlike so many who suffered major loss, in person or property, we thankfully made it through relatively unscathed. Now with seaducks on the seawall, I can handle no flush toilets, if it means more time outdoors.

Photograph courtesy of Don Freiday/USFWS