On Sunday, Mainers were purchasing batteries, candles and nonperishable food. And on Monday, deck furniture and Halloween decorations were hauled indoors before Hurricane Sandy crept up the east coast and blew it all into Canada.
Thanks to news reports and satellite imagery, we could prepare for the storm long before it slammed into our communities, but what about Maine’s diverse wildlife population? Did the animals know what was coming?
“It’s a really good question, and it’s also really hard to answer,” said Shawn Haskell, wildlife scientist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “Most of what we know is anecdotal, based on an observation here and there. There’s really not a lot of scientific studies about wildlife reactions to individual storm events.”
While Haskell was cleaning up his yard in Kenduskeag on Sunday, he was entertained by three red squirrels fighting for nuts just a few feet from where he was working. Meanwhile, chickadees were constantly visiting his bird feeder, and he wondered if they might be taking the opportunity to store up energy before hunkering down for the storm.
“Most people would probably be of the opinion that wildlife can sense storms coming and have evolved a response, behaviors to maximize energy intake now, seek cover and weather it out,” he said.
For example, it’s a common belief among hunters that white-tailed deer will seek shelter and lie down during windy weather. Popular hunting magazines often suggest that this behavior is a direct response to deer being capable of detecting drastic changes in barometric pressure, which decreases before a hurricane hits. In fact, many trail cameras record barometric pressure on each photo so that hunters might be able to detect patterns between barometric pressure and animal activity.
“I think most animals have low pressure sensors or at least are detecting something,” said William Glanz, associate professor of zoology at the University of Maine in Orono. “Maybe it’s just the cloudiness or the wind picking up — things like that — but they basically just withdraw to shelter.”
If changes in air pressure before Hurricane Sandy didn’t affect the deer, the 60-mph gusts from the hurricane may have. One primary way that deer evade predators is by detecting movement in the forest, Haskell said. When high speed wind causes trees to sway and leaves to scatter, they become increasingly nervous and often decide to lie down.
Expert birder and BDN columnist Bob Duchesne hadn’t noticed any big changes in bird behavior as of Monday afternoon, but birders are watching the progress of the storm for another reason.
“A lot of information is being swapped about what will happen if birds from down south get pushed up here,” Duchesne said.
Seabirds, in particular, may be pushed north by high winds.
“Whenever a major storm happens in migration season, it’s like, anything could happen,” Duchesne said. “Depending on what the storm does, they could go anywhere. We [birders] are telling each other to be on alert.”
So what species are they looking for? The list is long.
“Some of the long distance migrant landbirds, things like cave swallows, which are from Florida and Texas — things that don’t usually live anywhere near Maine — they’ve been blown [to Maine] in storms like this,” Duchesne said. “The northern lapwing, rare geese from Europe, has also been blown [to Maine] in storms like this.”
After the storm, most of the migrating birds that have been blown off course won’t have a problem getting back on track, Duchesne said. They’ll get reoriented and head south again.
“Most of migrants have already left Maine, and the ones that are here are used to occasionally dealing with big storms,” he said.
Land birds such as blue jays, partridge, chickadees and turkeys will likely seek shelter in conifers and dense vegetation, while some seabirds may fly farther from shore to ride out the storm on the water to avoid being bashed on the sharp rocks of Maine’s coast, said Glanz.
“There have been some observations of seagulls flying higher into the atmosphere, picking up wind and flying away, in front of a storm,” Haskell said.
Whether or not animals can detect the impending hurricane, they can be affected by the severity of the wind and rainfall.
“There’s little documentation of direct mortality, but it certainly exists,” Haskell said. “Hurricanes can have more of a long-term impact on wildlife, particularly anything that nests, roosts or forages in a damage-susceptible habitat.”
One example of a damage-susceptible habitat is an old tree, which is fragile and takes time to replace. Maine animals that often dwell in these trees include owls, woodpeckers, opossums and porcupines.
“I was just speaking with our shorebird specialist about the endangered piping plover, which nests on our coastal beaches, another habitat susceptible to damage,” Haskell said. “The storm surge could destroy a beach on one site and build it up on another.”
During the summer, southern Maine beaches were home to 42 counted pairs of piping plovers that fledged 64 young, said Lindsay Tudor, shorebird biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and biologists have been working hard to preserve their eroding habitat.
“It’s an amazing effort that seems to be making some positive effects,” Haskell said. “But you never know, one storm like this could just end it all.”
Piping plovers nest on the sand, just above the high water mark, and have been observed living on 22 Maine beaches, including Wells Beach, Ogunquit Beach, Popham Beach and Seawall Beach. The rare birds have already migrated this year, leaving Maine for the warmer climates of South Carolina, Florida and the Caribbean — places that avoided a thrashing by Hurricane Sandy, aside from a bit of heavy rain.
“These storms get us tapping our toes and itching to know what the effects are going to be,” said Laura Minich Zitske, director of the Piping Plover and Least Tern Recovery Project and wildlife ecologist at the Maine Audubon. “But it’s only October. Every beach is different. A storm can wreak havoc for some beaches and benefit other beaches.”
“[In Maine,] this storm could take away beach, but another storm can wash sand up,” Tudor said. “We always wait the whole winter and then see what we have for habitat.”