Biologists who study birds couldn’t believe what they were seeing at their research lab in Williamsburg. Two pigeon-size shorebirds they tracked with tiny satellite transmitters were doing something no one had ever recorded. They were flying through 115-mph winds of a massive hurricane.
“We were holding our breath,” Fletcher Smith, a research biologist at the Center for Conservation Biology , said last week about the birds as they approached Hurricane Irene. “We really didn’t have a good idea of what birds are able to navigate through.”
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.”
Animals can benefit, however, when hurricanes rearrange land, biologists said. Fallen trees provide new homes. Floods create new habitats that provide sanctuary and food for turtles and frogs. Cleared fields allow for new growth, a good thing if the plants aren’t invasive and destructive, said John Kostyack, vice president of wildlife conservation for the National Wildlife Federation.
“The important thing is animals do sense a storm ahead of time; they have forewarning,” Wink said. “Those who sense a change in weather and act fast have a better chance of survival.”
The impact of hurricanes on the animal kingdom is hard to study because storms are hard to predict, said Jacoby Carter, a research ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wetlands Research Center in coastal Louisiana. Researchers would have to drop what they’re doing and record the behavior of animals when it’s clear a storm will hit land, a dicey and costly undertaking.
Also, there is no census of animals at most forests and wildlife refuges because they’re almost impossible to count, Carter said. So it would be hard to determine the percentage of the dead.
On top of that is the question of why such a study is necessary. Hurricanes have roiled the Atlantic and Gulf coasts for centuries, and animals have survived, even thrived. Kostyack said studies would help officials protect animal habitats if the planet continues to warm and big storms and floods increase.
“I don’t think it’s a waste of time if you’re trying to understand what’s going on in the environment,” Carter said. “We’re building up knowledge, brick by brick,” he said.
The flight of the whimbrels — oatmeal-colored birds with long, curved beaks — was a major breakthrough, at least with regard to birds.
The center tracked four whimbrels it tagged in 2009 and 2010 to study their extraordinary flights from Virginia to breeding grounds as far away as Alaska. The birds were in the middle of migrations that started in Canada when Irene formed in the Caribbean.
Migrating birds are widely believed to tire and perish when they encounter hurricanes in open waters. But as biologists followed the satellite signals, they realized that a whimbrel they named Chinquapin powered through the storm, crossing it near the Bahamas on Aug. 25.
A second whimbrel they named Goshen flew through an outer band of Irene that same day, about 100 miles behind Chinquapin. The biologists were torn between worry that the birds wouldn’t make it and disbelief at their discovery.
“We just never had the luck or misfortune of having birds fly through these storms,” Smith said.
Five days later, when Irene reached Virginia, they watched as two other whimbrels, Machi and Hope, rode it out in a marsh. On Sept. 9, Machi headed south. Hope flew off the next day. Both flew through tropical storms on their way to the Caribbean.
What happened next was pure misfortune. Goshen flew into a “shooting swamp” on the French island of Guadeloupe, where she was gunned down Sept. 12 at Port-Louis Swamp. Machi landed on the island the same day and was shot dead at Pointe Allegre, Guadeloupe.