Remember Hurricane Sandy? The damage it caused has led to nesting opportunities for shrubland birds
June 20, 2017 — In a forest, a big storm isn’t a disaster. It’s a chance for re-growth – for an increase in diversity, and for one set of plants and animals to replace another set.
That’s exactly what happened in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy took down a 100 acres of pine forest owned by the Aquarion Water Company on Black Rock Turnpike, adjacent to Aquarion’s Hemlock Reservoir in Easton and Fairfield.
“It might have looked bad for a while,” said Milan Bull, the Connecticut Audubon Society’s senior director of science and conservation, “but it’s opened up the area so that birds that are disappearing from Connecticut elsewhere have a new place to nest.”
Now in its fifth season of regrowth, the Aquarion property is thick with brambles, greenbriar, young red cedar, birches, and the other shrubby plants that are the first to grow back.
To document the benefit to birds, Aquarion has hired Connecticut Audubon to carry out a breeding bird survey in May and June.
“The storm was 2012, so we hoped to give the forest a bit of a chance to grow back and the birds a chance to find it, and then see if it’s being used,” said Brian Roach, program manager of environmental protection for Aquarion. “We wanted to verify it with an expert, which is why we asked Miley to come in.”
Miley has visited the site once a week in May and June to conduct the survey, following a well-established protocol.
He plotted a transect across the property and on each visit he stops at five spots along the transect, 100 meters apart. He spends 10 minutes at each, listening and watching, and making notes on what he sees and hears. He then does the same in a section of intact forest nearby, as a test control site.
In the control forest, he regularly finds Red-eyed Vireo, Black-throated Green Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, Veery and Ovenbird – typical forest birds. In both areas he finds some of Fairfield County’s more common species, such as American Robins and Song Sparrows.
But, not surprisingly, in the area where Sandy toppled trees, he has also been finding birds that nest in shrubby areas. Those include Common Yellowthroat and Gray Catbird, as well as declining species such as Eastern Towhee and Blue-winged Warbler. In future years, he expects that Chestnut-sided Warbler, Indigo Bunting, and perhaps Brown Thrasher and Prairie Warbler, will nest there as well.
In addition to being essential for certain birds, early successional forests help protect the reservoirs by taking up nutrients before they reach the water supply.
“Forest management is an essential principle of good watershed management,” Roach said. “If you have a healthy, resilient forest, water quality is going to be much better.
“But also Aquarion prides itself as being stewards of the environment, so this was an opportunity to do something to improve the habitat. We’re well aware that many bird species are in decline because of the loss of this young forest. So this is an opportunity to manage our land not only for water quality but for habitat improvement as well.”