The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Thursday, September 25, 2008

How Does Hurricane Conditions Affect Our Wildlife?
by Ro Wauer

Hurricane Ike caused severe problems for people all along the upper Gulf Coast. We have all heard agonizing stories about Ike’s impact on human beings. But what about the wildlife, the birds, mammals, butterflies, and other creatures, that did not evacuate or go into a shelter of some sort? The answer is varied, depending upon a large set of circumstances. For instance, many of the more mobile species, such as birds and butterflies, were able to escape, either by flying away or floating away on the storm front. But many of all these creatures undoubtedly succumbed to Hurricane Ike.

Migrating northern birds probably did not enter the area of Ike’s influence, either by staying put out of danger or circling around the storm. Resident species had little choice, however. They simply hunkered down in some semi-protected location, not coming out until the storm passed them by. Mortality was undoubtedly significant. Some of hardest hit birds were some of the larger colonial roosting species such as the herons, egrets and gulls. But once the storm passed them by, the survivors probably did very well because most of those birds possess an omnivorous diet. They are ably to feed on almost any kind of carrion or a variety of dead and dying creatures. This probably is also true for any vultures and raptors that were present after the storm. In fact, there are records of increased numbers of raptors to an area following a storm.

Hummingbirds probably were hardest hit by the storm, for two reasons. First, they are tiny creatures that can be thrown about by heavy winds, and are very likely to be injured. Second, once the storm passes by, nectaring plants, on which hummingbirds depend, would be seriously diminished. And because flowering plants are probably affected by salt water from the storm, the surviving plants cannot flower for several days or weeks or even the following season. Often hummingbirds that do survival the storm perish soon afterwards unless they can find an adequate food supply. That is why hummingbird feeders, loaded with sugar water, are so important immediately after a storm.

And what about the mammals such as the deer, hogs, coyotes, and rodents? The same scenario for the birds might also apply to the mammals. Burrowing rodents could possibly survive in underground cavities that do not get flooded. But the larger mammals that were forced to face the water and wind might be less successful. Yet, most of these creatures are tough and are opportunists; that is how they are able to survive in this human-dominated society. And once the storm is past, the carnivores are likely to do very well. Deer that feed on plants may be more hard pressed, but they too are hardy creatures and are likely to make it even with a reduced food supply.

Butterflies are an interesting group of wildlife. There are records of butterflies suddenly appearing in a place they have never previously been reported, even a hundred miles or more from they known breeding grounds. Butterflies being so light weight and easily blown about, can ride thermals or storm fronts for amazing distances. Although many undoubtedly succumb to a storm, especially those adults that stay put, many escape simply by drifting away. And since most butterflies live only a couple weeks, and are replaced by newly emerging individuals, so long as the butterfly chrysalis survives, more butterflies can be present soon after a storm. But if their nectaring plants may be in short supply, emergence can be postponed.
The aftermath of major storms is a fascinating time for wildlife enthusiasts. Birds and butterflies can appear in out-of-range locations for days afterwards. That is why birders and butterfly enthusiasts keep a watchful eye out for surprise species.


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