Coastal Conservation

When Hurricanes and Coastal Construction Alter Bird Habitat – How Do They Fare?

Even if the perfect breeding and foraging habitat exists, birds today must contend with disturbance from people, pets, and predators like coyotes and crows.

For sea, shore, and wading birds along Florida’s coastline, breeding and foraging habitat is tightly linked to their ability to successfully raise their families. What is foraging habitat? Put simply, it’s the areas where these birds find their food. Coastlines are dynamic areas, and in 2023 we saw firsthand how changing shorelines are impacting some of Florida’s most vulnerable birds, from the diminutive Snowy Plovers to the theatrical Reddish Egrets. 

Hurricanes

“Hurricanes have a large impact on bird habitat, but not in the way you might think,” explains Audrey DeRoseWilson, director of bird conservation for Audubon Florida.

Coastal birds are adapted to hurricanes and actually benefit from overwash events that create new, open, sandy habitat. When a storm strips a beach of vegetation or covers that vegetation with sand, these newly disturbed areas become prime nesting sites for plovers, terns, and skimmers. Moreover, storms open inlets and create intertidal habitat that is perfect for shorebirds to forage for food, further boosting their opportunities for a successful nesting season. After 2018’s Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle, for example, sea and shorebirds hatched more chicks than in previous years.

Similarly, we saw high numbers of Snowy Plover, Least Tern, and Black Skimmer nesting pairs in Southwest Florida after 2022’s Hurricane Ian. They not only hatched more chicks, but these chicks successfully fledged, and will hopefully return once they’ve matured to hatch chicks of their own. “After a storm, habitat changes are often viewed as destruction,” DeRose-Wilson continues. “We know it certainly feels that way for local communities, and our hearts go out to them as they seek to rebuild in the wake of a hurricane. But for birds, it’s different. They need storms to maintain the habitat they need to survive long term.”

Long-term Coastal Changes

Unfortunately, in a rush to rebuild after a storm, or by annually maintaining dredged channels or hardened shorelines, people are reducing critical foraging habitat for some of Florida’s most iconic species. In the Tampa Bay region, breeding Reddish Egret pairs are down by more than 70% in the past twenty years. While nesting habitat remains, they don’t have enough shallow areas to successfully hunt for food. Popular sites for beachgoers in the summer months further shrink available foraging areas. Reddish Egrets need these shallow depths to actively hunt for enough small fish to feed hungry chicks. Sea level rise will only exacerbate these problems, as the foraging habitat that exists becomes deeper while hardened seawalls prevent new shallow areas from forming.

What Audubon Does to Help the Birds

Even if the perfect breeding and foraging habitat exists, birds today must contend with disturbance from people, pets, and predators like coyotes and crows. Audubon works at more than 300 coastal sites across the Sunshine State to educate beachgoers about how to protect these birds, while coordinating with local wildlife agencies and staff to reduce predation on already vulnerable nesting birds. In Tampa, Audubon is constructing offshore breakwaters that create calm-water foraging areas and slow the loss of shallow water habitat. We work with partners to protect existing feeding areas and seek opportunities to create new foraging habitats, including establishing Critical Wildlife Areas, pushing for beneficial use of dredge material, and reducing human disturbance. 

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This article first appeared in the Winter edition of the Naturalist magazine.

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