Hurricane Ian Rearranges Breeding Bird Habitat in Northeast and Southwest Florida

Hurricane Ian has proved to be one of the most destructive storms in Florida’s history, devastating both coastal and inland communities while reminding us that climate change will continue to bring stronger and more frequent storms to our shores. While we know the negative impacts of these storms on our neighborhoods, how do the birds fare? Our coastal team hit the beaches and barrier islands to perform habitat assessments in the wake of Hurricane Ian.

Erosion in Northeast Florida

Northeast Florida saw worsening erosion as a result of both Hurricanes Ian and Nicole. “We lost more dry, non-vegetated beach between dunes and the intertidal zone,” Chris Farrell, Northeast Florida Policy Associate, explains. Additionally, islands that formed in Nassau Sound are now below high tide and may not build back enough over the winter to again serve as viable nesting habitat come spring. Loss of shoreline in Huguenot Memorial Park could exacerbate conflicts between nesting sea and shorebirds and recreational beach users. This will likely play out in Anastasia State Park as well, where less sand between dunes and the water reduces available beach used by all. By contrast, there may be additional opportunities for Least Tern nesting at Summer Haven due to the continued erosion and redistribution of sand on that site from years of nourishment and dune restoration. This is a highly dynamic area that shorebird partners in the region will watch closely as the nesting season approaches.

A Mixed Bag for Southwest Florida

Lee and Collier counties bore the brunt of the destructive storm surges that swamped coastal communities. However, habitat changes proved to be both positive and negative for nesting sea and shorebirds. While some beaches lost sand and nesting areas — like the loss of the smaller second island at Second Chance Critical Wildlife Area — others experienced sand accretion, giving the shoreline additional height to withstand 2023 tides and storms. As one example, Morgan Beach gained sand and
elevation within Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. “It’s also not uncommon to see both sand loss and sand gain at the same site,” says Rochelle Streker, Southwest Florida Shorebird Manager. A lack of beach vegetation, a result of being torn out or covered up by sand, is one benefit now being seen at sites throughout Southwest Florida, including in Lee County where many site assessments are still ongoing. Beaches on barrier islands and peninsulas — like Cayo Costa State Park and Keewaydin and Sanibel Islands — now have less vegetation on the dunes, potentially providing additional nesting habitat to Least Terns and Black Skimmers.

Looking to Lessons from the Past and the Future Along our Shorelines

While we would prefer to avoid additional storms in any part of Florida, the birds are showing that they are adapted to periodic hurricanes and will take advantage of shifting sands and newly available habitat. As just one example, in the wake of 2018’s Hurricane Michael in the Panhandle, threatened sea and shorebirds experienced major productivity bumps. In 2019, Snowy Plovers fledged 69 chicks from six Panhandle sites — up from 12 in 2018 and up from the 2014-2018 average of 23 fledglings. Audubon’s coastal team will continue to work with local partners to monitor Florida’s beaches, dunes, and barrier islands ahead of spring breeding and nesting. Like the sea and shorebirds, visitors and residents alike must learn to adapt to stormier seasons as climate change continues to ratchet up the threat of storm surge, flooding, and more.

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