Bird habitats feel Sandy’s effects

As with Tropical Storm Irene, the effect of storm Sandy on the bird population of Connecticut and its habitats may not be known until next year’s nesting season. But the folks who keep an eye on these things think there will be both good and bad news then.

Great Frigatebird

A Great Frigatebird glides overhead

The one thing they know already — storm winds once again blew birds off course, though not as seriously as during Irene. More concerning though, will be the potential impact of the tidal surge in bird habitat areas — especially those that suffered damage during Irene as well, said Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut, the state office of the National Audubon Society.

“We’re trying to assess that now,” Comins said, though this time it’s taken longer to get to shoreline areas. “There was significant over-washing of the dunes. How that stands out for the birds is up in the air.”

He said nesting areas may now be too eroded and too low, leaving them subject to flooding. On the other hand, he said, the over-washing may have created new dunes that could become replacement habitats. He is most concerned about Sandy Point in West Haven and Long Beach West in Stratford.

Cockenoe Island off Norwalk and Westport could be Exhibit A for the yin and yang of storm damage. It suffered significant erosion during Irene, but the lack of vegetation resulted in an even larger nesting colony last spring. Yet with little left to stem spring and summer tides, it washed away during the summer.

And that will be the balancing act going forward, Comins said. “Vegetation loss could be good temporarily for birds,” he said. But he quickly added that continuing erosion is the downside. “Our job is going to be much harder next year. Everything changes. Colonies pop up where we don’t expect them.

“It’s an opportunity. If we manage it properly and have the proper resources, it gets them back to where should be and not so endangered as they are now.”

For birders, Sandy, like Irene, provided an unusual chance to see species that don’t normally appear around here, especially in Long Island Sound. In general, the easterly winds resulted in the appearance of birds that normally stay offshore.

Two types of pelicans were seen — not unheard of, but still rare. An American white pelican was spotted in Rocky Neck. They sometimes come through here, though Comins figured the storm blew this one in. Brown pelicans were seen in New London and Stratford. He said they sometimes get up here, but New Jersey is usually their northern border.

A Magnificent Frigatebird, normally not seen north of North Carolina was spotted, as were members of the Alcid family (think puffins) — generally found only at sea. Other seabirds that rarely venture north of the Carolinas seen post-Sandy here were Great and Cory’s shearwaters, Leach’s Storm-petrels, Sooty and Bridled terns and Red Phalaropes.

On the plus side for bird habitat, Comins said, tree damage was less severe than Irene and there was less rain.