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Piping Plovers Benefited from Hurricane Sandy

Storms and undeveloped coastlines can create and maintain habitat for this species, which is threatened along the Atlantic coast.

USGS scientists have new insight on just how important storms and undeveloped stretches of coastline are for creating and maintaining habitat for piping plovers, which are federally listed as threatened along the Atlantic coast.

Scientists studied select locations in New York, New Jersey and Virginia following Hurricane Sandy, finding an overall increase in piping plover habitat after the storm, particularly in areas with limited human development. This new research is published in PLOS ONE.

Piping plover adult and two chicks
A piping plover parent and chicks.

“Coastal storms can be devastating for human lives and infrastructure but are also natural processes that can provide benefits such as creating habitats for many species,” said USGS scientist Sara Zeigler, who is the lead author of this study.

“This new research can help inform coastal planning decisions,” continued Zeigler. “For example, managers and policy makers, who are trying to balance the needs of people and wildlife, could use this information to establish minimum areas that could be left undeveloped. Several other species would also benefit from protecting piping plover habitat, as many other shorebirds use the same type of beach habitat as plovers. These include American oystercatchers, black skimmers and common and least terns.”

Storms tend to create flat beaches with little to no vegetation and extensive overwash, which are all ideal conditions for nesting piping plovers. This study showed that the plovers used the newly formed habitat and thus benefited from Hurricane Sandy.

Scientists used satellite imagery, remotely sensed lidar elevations and aerial photographs to map habitat before and after the storm.

One Year After Hurricane Sandy

One year after the storm, USGS scientists found that Hurricane Sandy increased piping plover habitat by 9% to 300% at four of the five study sites. They looked at habitat change on Fire Island and the Rockaway Peninsula in New York; Pullen and Long Beach Island in New Jersey; and Cedar Island in Virginia.

Research also shows that more piping plover habitat was created on barrier islands that had large stretches of undeveloped coastline. The 300% increase in habitat was documented on the undeveloped Pullen Island.

While Cedar Island was the only study area with an overall decrease in habitat, there is evidence suggesting that overall habitat quality on Cedar Island may have stayed the same or improved. Lower quality habitat closer to the ocean was lost as higher quality habitat was gained, particularly from overwash creating sandy habitats in what was previously marsh.

Piping plovers typically establish nests in washovers, backshore areas and low elevation dunes. They prefer predominantly sandy areas or a mixture of sand, shell, gravel, or cobble and where there is either no or sparse vegetation.

Two Years After the Storm

a Virginia beach before and after Hurricane Sandy
Overwash processes caused by storms, like the one seen here following Hurricane Sandy on a barrier island in Virginia, push sand landward over dunes to create low-elevation, minimally vegetated sandy habitats used by a variety of species, like piping plovers.

Two years after Sandy, the amount of habitat that remained was also inversely correlated to the amount of human development. According to the study, scientists saw habitat continue to increase by as much as 50% on Pullen Island from post-Hurricane Sandy to two years later. On the moderately developed Fire Island, the amount of habitat after the storm declined by 17%. On the densely developed Rockaway Peninsula, habitat gained immediately after the storm did not persist, and habitat was below pre-Sandy levels two years later.

The most developed site, Long Beach Island, and one of the undeveloped sites, Cedar Island, were exceptions to these patterns. Hypotheses for undeveloped Cedar Island are the same as previously discussed, with scientists observing that overall habitat quality could have stayed the same or improved because of overwash, even as the amount of overall habitat declined.

Since Long Beach Island is highly developed and stabilized, scientists expected to see little change in habitat. However, habitat increased at this location by 250% post-Hurricane Sandy and continued to increase two years later. These patterns were driven by habitat created within the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, where human development is limited.

First Study Assessing Habitat Change Over a Large Area

This is one of the first studies to look at habitat change caused by a storm’s simultaneous impact on several barrier islands. Previous research has linked storms to increased habitat, and those conclusions were primarily based on the number of offspring produced and increased plover population after storms. This new study takes a different approach and looks directly at how much habitat is created by a storm.

“Before this research, scientists didn’t know exactly how much habitat is created after a storm, the rate at which birds use newly created habitat, and how quickly that habitat is lost in the years that follow,” said Zeigler. “This research quantifies these patterns, which is important information for decision-makers managing these coastal areas.”

and fencing on a Fire Island beach
Human modifications to beaches, such as sand fencing, sea walls and rock jetties, can alter natural beach processes like overwash. This can affect how much habitat for species like piping plovers is created by storms.Credit: Sara Zeigler, USGS. Public domain.

USGS Science

USGS scientists first collected data on the most desirable and suitable areas for piping plover nests. This was mainly done through iPlover, which is a USGS smartphone application. When a nest was identified, users of iPlover provided the location, vegetation type and density, corresponding date and time and other landscape characteristics.

Scientists then looked at remotely sensed data to map areas of plover habitat before Hurricane Sandy from 2010 to 2011 and compared that to habitat after the storm in 2012 and again from 2014 to 2015. With these maps, scientists explored places where habitat was created and lost through time.

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