It was an eye-opener. Meteorologists know just about all there is to know about hurricanes from decades of study. And public officials know how people should react when monster storms approach land. But there’s virtually no science showing how birds and other wildlife behave when a megastorm is coming and when it strikes. What game officials and biologists know about animal behavior in a storm is almost purely anecdotal.
Irene caused more than 40 deaths in eight states after it slammed into North Carolina in late August and cut through Virginia and Maryland on its way north. Tropical Storm Lee in September overwhelmed sewage systems and pushed so much sediment and nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay that half its blue-green waters changed to a sickly-looking brown.
At the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge on a barrier island north of Charleston, S.C., 200 sea-turtle nests with large clutches of eggs were wiped out. Swaths of the island were washed away, which might hamper turtles from nesting next year, said Sarah Dawsey, manager of the refuge.
Hurricanes pose a significant threat to endangered species whose populations have been reduced by humans, biologists said. When asked how animals in the region fared in the one-two punch of storms, they said they didn’t have much data to draw from. They based their answers on observations from past storms.
Bears move to high ground and hunker down, said one biologist. Deer plop next to fallen trees and hug them close, said another. Squirrels, opossums and raccoons slip into holes in tree stumps and logs to wait it out. Small birds squat in thick bushes.
Smith said the center also put satellite transmitters on bald eagles and discovered that they, too, have a preferred method of riding out deadly storms.
“They’ll just sit on a tree branch and hold on for dear life,” he said. “Most birds ride out storms that way. When they grip something, it’s easier to stay gripped than it is to let go.”
Those tactics don’t always help. More than 20 percent of bald-eagle nests along the James River were destroyed, and an additional 23 percent were damaged, according to the Center for Conservation Biology of Virginia Commonwealth University and the College of William and Mary.
“Although nine out of 10 animals can weather storms through precaution, some don’t make it,” said Judy Wink, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, a wildlife refuge in Grasonville, Md.
Some animals, like some people, wait too long to safely flee, Wink said. “Birds . . . if they’re late in seeking cover, they get blown into windows and porches,” she said. “Osprey babies get blown out of nests. We’ve had ospreys that were blown into power lines.”