While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues to respond to damage from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy—clearing out wind-felled timber or hauling hundreds of tons of debris out of coastal salt marsh—the agency is also using science to assess the full scope of the storm’s ecological impact and establish a baseline for future conservation efforts. Some Service research that’s been integral to Hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience efforts is already visible in projects like the recently completed beach restorations along New Jersey’s Delaware Bay. This region has long been seen as indispensable to migrating shorebirds like the red knot, whose eastern population has plummeted 80 percent in the past decade.
While many of the most impacted bird species are shorebirds, studies by the Saltmarsh Habitat & Avian Research Program (SHARP), a collaborative effort between the Fish and Wildlife Service and several other academic, governmental, and privately funded partners, are focused more on marsh birds such as the seaside sparrow, the willet and the clapper rail. According to Randy Dettmers, a senior biologist with the Service, one project funded under the Hurricane Sandy umbrella (and preceded by supporting SHARP research) has targeted more than 1,700 observation points across tidal marshes from Maine to Virginia for post-Sandy monitoring of migratory bird populations.
Partners in the SHARP collaboration include the Universities of Maine, Delaware, New Hampshire, Connecticut and State University of New York (SUNY) College of Environmental Science and Forestry, as well as the Audubon Society, the National Park Service, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife and many other state- and regionally based organizations. The program also employs dozens of graduate and undergraduate students who collect abundance, breeding and survival data by monitoring these sites and banding birds.
Another Sandy-funded project launched by Dettmers and Service colleagues Chris Dwyer and Scott Johnston examines the prevalence and distribution of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV)—coastal plants that grow beneath the waterline and are primary food sources for wintering waterfowl, including the priority species Atlantic brant and American black duck. Studies of SAV in the wake of an intense storm like Sandy, Dettmers says, will provide an excellent picture of “how much of [the vegetation] is vulnerable to climate change impacts from sea-level rise and future major storm events and what the resulting impacts on wintering waterfowl populations are likely to be.”
Dettmers says the effects of predicted climate change will be increasingly challenging for coastal habitat and the species that depend on it. He expects that future storms and sea level rise will likely impact beach and tidal marsh habitats, affecting birds’ ability to find food and suitable nesting places, and that ultimately this may result in reduced bird populations.
“Species like the saltmarsh sparrow and seaside sparrow are endemic to the Atlantic coast marshes of North America,” he says. “They don’t occur anywhere else in the world, and they’re highly vulnerable to sea-level rise and major storm impacts such as are expected from climate change. If tidal marshes in this part of the world are lost, we’ll lose those species as well.”
He adds that beach-dependent species like the red knot—already a candidate for threatened status under the Endangered Species Act because of other threats to its population—“will only be pushed further toward the endangered end of the conservation concern spectrum” if the loss of coastal habitat can’t be somehow stabilized.
To read more about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Migratory Birds program, click here. To read more about the SHARP program and its constituent collaborating agencies and institutions, click here.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been working to repair and restore public lands on the Atlantic coast since Hurricane Sandy impacted them in October of 2012. To learn more about the Service’s ongoing efforts to facilitate habitat recovery and build coastal resilience that helps protect communities, please visit www.fws.gov/hurricane/sandy.