Scientists at work: Sloshing through marshes to see how birds survive hurricanes

A clapper rail with a fiddler crab in its bill.
Michael Gray, CC BY-ND

Scott Rush, Mississippi State University and Mark Woodrey, Mississippi State University

When storms like Huricane Zeta menace the Gulf Coast, residents know the drill: Board up windows, clear storm drains, gas up the car and stock up on water, batteries and canned goods.

But how does wildlife ride out a hurricane? Animals that live along coastlines have evolved to deal with a world where conditions can change radically. This year, however, the places they inhabit have borne the brunt of 10 named storms, some just a few weeks apart.

As wildlife ecologists, we are interested in how species respond to stresses in their environment. We are currently studying how marsh birds such as clapper rails (Rallus crepitans) have adapted to tropical storms along the Alabama and Mississippi Gulf coast. Understanding how they do this entails wading into marshes and thinking like a small, secretive bird.

Least bittern in marsh grass
A least bittern, one of the smallest species of heron.
Michael Gray, CC BY-ND

Mucky and full of life

Coastal wetlands are critically important ecosystems. They harbor fish, shellfish and wading birds, filter water as it flows through and buffer coastlines against flooding.

You wouldn’t choose a Gulf Coast salt marsh for a casual stroll. There are sharp-pointed plants, such as black needlerush​, and sucking mud. In summer and early fall the marshes are oppressively hot and humid. Bacteria and fungi in the mud break down dead material, generating sulfurous-smelling gases. But once you get used to the conditions, you realize how productive these places are, with a myriad of organisms moving about.

Marsh birds are adept at hiding in dense grasses, so it’s more common to hear them than to see them. That’s why we use a process known as a callback survey to monitor for them.

First we play a prerecorded set of calls to elicit responses from birds in the marsh. Then we determine where we think the birds are calling from and visually estimate the distance from the observer to that spot, often using tools such as laser range finders. We also note the type of ecosystem where we detect the birds – for example, whether they’re in a tidal marsh with emergent vegetation or out in the open on mud flats.

Adult clapper rail calling.

Through this process we’ve been able to estimate the distributions of several species in tidal marshes, including clapper rails, least bitterns (Ixobrychus exilis) and seaside sparrows (Ammospiza maritima). We’ve also plotted trends in their abundance and identified how their numbers can change with characteristics of the marsh.

We’ve walked hundreds of miles through marshes to locate nests and to record data such as nest height, density of surrounding vegetation and proximity to standing water, which provides increased foraging opportunities for rails. Then we revisit the nests to document whether they produce young that hatch and eventually leave. Success isn’t guaranteed: Predators may eat the eggs, or flooding could wash them out of the nest and kill the developing embryos inside.

Salt marshes shelter many types of plants, birds, animals, fish and shellfish.

Rails in the grass

Our research currently focuses on clapper rails, which look like slender chickens with grayish-brown feathers and short tails. Like many other marsh birds, they have longish legs and toes for walking across soft mud, and long bills for probing the marsh surface in search of food. They are found year-round along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Clapper rails typically live in tidal marshes where there is vegetation to hide in and plenty of fiddler crabs, among their frequent foods. Because they are generally common and rely on coastal marshes, they are a good indicator of the health of these coastal areas.

Scientist in marsh holding live Clapper Rail
Ecologist Scott Rush with clapper rail, Pascagoula River Marshes, Mississippi.
Mark Woodrey, CC BY-ND

Water levels in tidal marshes change daily, and clapper rails have some adaptations that help them thrive there. They often build nests in areas with particularly tall vegetation to hide them from predators. And they can raise the height of the nest bowl to protect it against flooding during extra-high or “king” tides and storms. The embryos inside their eggs can survive even if the eggs are submerged for several hours.

When a tropical storm strikes, many factors – including wind speed, flooding and the storm’s position – influence how severely it will affect marsh birds. Typically birds ride out storms by moving to higher areas of the marsh. However, if a storm generates extensive flooding, birds in affected areas may swim or be blown to other locations. We saw this in early June when Hurricane Cristobal blew hundreds of clapper rails onto beaches in parts of coastal Mississippi.

Clapper rails hiding under a breakwater
Clapper rails on a Mississippi beach after Hurricane Cristobal in June 2020.
Mark Woodrey, CC BY-ND

In coastal areas immediately to the east of the eye of a tropical cyclone we typically see a drop in clapper rail populations in the following spring and summer. This happens because the counterclockwise rotation of the storms results in the highest winds and storm surge to the north and east of the eye of the storm.

But typically there’s a strong bout of breeding and a population rebound within a year or so – evidence that these birds are quick to adapt. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005, however, depending on the type of marsh, it took several years for rail populations to return to their pre-Katrina levels.

Now we’re radio-tagging clapper rails and collecting data that allow us to determine the birds’ life spans. This information helps us estimate when large numbers of birds have died – information that we can correlate with events like coastal hurricanes.

2020 Atlantic hurricane paths
Summary map of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, updated Oct. 27.

Losing parts

Tropical storms have shaped coastal ecosystems since long before recorded history. But over the past 150 years humans have complicated the picture. Coastal development – draining marshes, building roads and reinforcing shorelines – is altering natural places that support marsh birds.

Clapper rails and other species have evolved traits that help them offset population losses due to natural disasters. But they can do so only if the ecosystems where they live keep providing them with food, breeding habitat and protection from predators. Coastal development, in combination with rising sea levels and larger tropical storms, can act like a one-two punch, making it increasingly hard for marshes and the species that live in them to recover.

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Biologist Paul Ehrlich has compared species at risk to rivets on an airplane. You might not need every rivet in place for the airplane to fly, but would you fly it through a cyclone if you knew that 10% of its rivets were missing? What about 20%, or 30%? At some point, Ehrlich asserts, nature could lose so many species that it becomes unable to provide valuable services that humans take for granted.

We see coastal marshes as an airplane that humans are piloting through storms. As species and ecosystem services are pummeled, rivets are failing. No one knows where or how the aircraft will land. But we believe that preserving marshes instead of weakening them can improve the chance of a smooth landing.The Conversation

Scott Rush, Assistant Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management, Mississippi State University and Mark Woodrey, Assistant Research Professor, Mississippi State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Protecting wetlands helps communities reduce damage from hurricanes and storms

File 20181009 72133 1o1hr7u.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Protecting coastal wetlands, like this slough in Florida’s Everglades National Park, is a cost-effective way to reduce flooding and storm damage.
NPS/C. Rivas

Siddharth Narayan, University of California, Santa Cruz and Michael Beck, University of California, Santa Cruz

2017 was the worst year on record for hurricane damage in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean from Harvey, Irma and Maria. We had hoped for a reprieve this year, but less than a month after Hurricane Florence devastated communities across the Carolinas, Hurricane Michael has struck Florida.

Coastlines are being developed rapidly and intensely in the United States and worldwide. The population of central and south Florida, for example, has grown by 6 million since 1990. Many of these cities and towns face the brunt of damage from hurricanes. In addition, rapid coastal development is destroying natural ecosystems like marshes, mangroves, oyster reefs and coral reefs – resources that help protect us from catastrophes.

In a unique partnership funded by Lloyd’s of London, we worked with colleagues in academia, environmental organizations and the insurance industry to calculate the financial benefits that coastal wetlands provide by reducing storm surge damages from hurricanes. Our study, published in 2017, found that this function is enormously valuable to local communities. It offers new evidence that protecting natural ecosystems is an effective way to reduce risks from coastal storms and flooding.

Coastal wetlands and flood damage reduction: A collaboration between academia, conservation and the risk industry.

The economic value of flood protection from wetlands

Although there is broad understanding that wetlands can protect coastlines, researchers have not explicitly measured how and where these benefits translate into dollar values in terms of reduced risks to people and property. To answer this question, our group worked with experts who understand risk best: insurers and risk modelers.

Using the industry’s storm surge models, we compared the flooding and property damages that occurred with wetlands present during Hurricane Sandy to the damages that would have occurred if these wetlands were lost. First we compared the extent and severity of flooding during Sandy to the flooding that would have happened in a scenario where all coastal wetlands were lost. Then, using high-resolution data on assets in the flooded locations, we measured the property damages for both simulations. The difference in damages – with wetlands and without – gave us an estimate of damages avoided due to the presence of these ecosystems.

Our paper shows that during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, coastal wetlands prevented more than US$625 million in direct property damages by buffering coasts against its storm surge. Across 12 coastal states from Maine to North Carolina, wetlands and marshes reduced damages by an average of 11 percent.

These benefits varied widely by location at the local and state level. In Maryland, wetlands reduced damages by 30 percent. In highly urban areas like New York and New Jersey, they provided hundreds of millions of dollars in flood protection.

Wetland benefits for flood damage reduction during Sandy (redder areas benefited more from having wetlands).
Narayan et al., Nature Scientific Reports 7, 9463 (2017)., CC BY

Wetlands reduced damages in most locations, but not everywhere. In some parts of North Carolina and the Chesapeake Bay, wetlands redirected the surge in ways that protected properties directly behind them, but caused greater flooding to other properties, mainly in front of the marshes. Just as we would not build in front of a seawall or a levee, it is important to be aware of the impacts of building near wetlands.

Wetlands reduce flood losses from storms every year, not just during single catastrophic events. We examined the effects of marshes across 2,000 storms in Barnegat Bay, New Jersey. These marshes reduced flood losses annually by an average of 16 percent, and up to 70 percent in some locations.

Reductions in annual flood losses to properties that have a marsh in front (blue) versus properties that have lost the marshes in front (orange).
Narayan et al., Nature Scientific Reports 7, 9463 (2017)., CC BY

In related research, our team has also shown that coastal ecosystems can be highly cost-effective for risk reduction and adaptation along the U.S. Gulf Coast, particularly as part of a portfolio of green (natural) and gray (engineered) solutions.

Reducing risk through conservation

Our research shows that we can measure the reduction in flood risks that coastal ecosystems provide. This is a central concern for the risk and insurance industry and for coastal managers. We have shown that these risk reduction benefits are significant, and that there is a strong case for conserving and protecting our coastal ecosystems.

The next step is to use these benefits to create incentives for wetland conservation and restoration. Homeowners and municipalities could receive reductions on insurance premiums for managing wetlands. Post-storm spending should include more support for this natural infrastructure. And new financial tools such as resilience bonds, which provide incentives for investing in measures that reduce risk, could support wetland restoration efforts too.

The dense vegetation and shallow waters within wetlands can slow the advance of storm surge and dissipate wave energy.

Improving long-term resilience

Increasingly, communities are also beginning to consider ways to improve long-term resilience as they assess their recovery options.

There is often a strong desire to return to the status quo after a disaster. More often than not, this means rebuilding seawalls and concrete barriers. But these structures are expensive, will need constant upgrades as as sea levels rise, and can damage coastal ecosystems.

Even after suffering years of damage, Florida’s mangrove wetlands and coral reefs play crucial roles in protecting the state from hurricane surges and waves. And yet, over the last six decades urban development has eliminated half of Florida’s historic mangrove habitat. Losses are still occurring across the state from the Keys to Tampa Bay and Miami.

Protecting and nurturing these natural first lines of defense could help Florida homeowners reduce property damage during future storms. In the past two years our team has worked with the private sector and government agencies to help translate these risk reduction benefits into action for rebuilding natural defenses.

Across the United States, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, coastal communities face a crucial question: Can they rebuild in ways that make them better prepared for the next storm, while also conserving the natural resources that make these locations so valuable? Our work shows that the answer is yes.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on Sept. 25, 2017.The Conversation

Siddharth Narayan, Postdoctoral Fellow, Coastal Flood Risk, University of California, Santa Cruz and Michael Beck, Research professor, University of California, Santa Cruz

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.