Hurricane Preparedness for National Parks and our Wildlife.
As The Bahamas braces for Hurricane Irma, the Bahamas National Trust (BNT) is rapidly preparing the national parks for a possible devastating hit at multiple sites across the country. The BNT would like to wish everyone in the path of the storm safe passage, and asks that we all take every precaution necessary and look after each other.
The BNT has been receiving calls and messages from citizens inquiring about Bahamian wildlife and how they cope with hurricanes. With the island of Great Inagua directly in the path of the hurricane, many have asked what could be done to protect the Flamingos, Bahama Parrots and other wildlife on the island. The BNT wanted to share what we know of how hurricanes impact our wildlife, and what people can do to help.
Many animals have been shown to respond to changes in weather patterns, especially a dramatic drop in barometric pressure, which is associated with extreme storms like Irma. The changes in temperature, air pressure and even light can induce chemical responses in the body that make the animals change their behavior and can trigger a “flight response”. This is well documented in birds, sharks and even insects; even though how the animal responds depends upon the species in question.
What does this mean for our Bahamian flamingos?
Our flamingos are known to fly to other islands ahead of a storm, however many of the newly fledged birds this season may not be strong enough to make a long flight. Flamingos can take about 6 months to fully fledge (develop fully grown flight feathers). Many of the flamingo chicks would have hatched in March, and they are only now trying out their new fully grown flight feathers. During the chaos, the greatest toll will be on the new generation of flamingos. Flamingos in the wild typically live up to forty (40) years of age and these experienced social birds have survived several hurricanes and can lead the flock to safety. Some birds may remain and ride out the storm by laying low in the mangrove forests in the centre of Lake Rosa. Hurricane Irma will definitely impact the flamingos that remain on Inagua.
What about the Bahama parrots?
Bahama parrots are not as likely to move from the island but they too will sense the pending storm and will usually take shelter. These birds are intelligent but they are vulnerable to major storms especially as they feed on fruits and nuts which become scarce following a major storm. However, these birds have proved to be resilient. Before Hurricane Ike the Bahama Parrot population was estimated to be a little over 8,000 birds. Shortly after Ike struck the island of Great Inagua in 2008 with 125 mph force winds, the parrots were surveyed to have dropped to about 4,000 birds. However, two years later the population bounced back to its original numbers and beyond.
What other impacts are there to our wildlife?
There will be major impacts to the marine environment that will impact our fisheries and the health of the marine environment. Following Hurricane Ike in 2008 the BNT Inagua park wardens documented huge numbers of baby conchs washed up onto shore and killed. Sea turtle and shore bird nests will get washed away, coral reefs and sea grass beds will get broken up and brought onto land, killing them. The massive amount of sand that will become suspended into the water column will choke corals and block the sun for both corals and seagrass.
Freshwater resources in the porous limestone rock will be impacted with salt water intrusion. This will be devastating to the communities and vegetation that rely on this resource. Many farm plants and pine trees will eventually die following the storm as a result. Habitats that are impacted will become more vulnerable to invasive plants causing a further deterioration and weaken the ability of our ecosystems to bounce back.
The White-crowned Pigeon, the Bahamas premier game bird depends on native fruits for its diet. Loss of large areas of coppice will affect their ability to forage for native fruits and berries. The Government of The Bahamas (GOB) may have to reconsider the opening of the hunting season (September 15th) in light of the affects of this storm on this important keystone species. The nectar feeding birds such as hummingbirds and bananaquits are at great risk following a storm as the flowers on trees will be gone, with trees possibly taking some time to recover.
How the environment helps us?
Studies have shown that healthy, intact habitats especially mangroves and reefs help protect our coastline from the full wrath of a storm like Irma. The coral reefs will disrupt and topple of waves approaching the shores and the “tangled mess” of a mangrove thicket further soften the impact of waves, which means less damage to human infrastructure along the coast.
What people can do to help wildlife after a hurricane?
- Homeowners who normally have bird feeders with seed or nectar, or baths, could ensure that they continue to tend to their feathered friends after the storm to ensure greater survival rates.
- If you live where Bahama Parrots are impacted, and they look hungry, you can help them recover faster by leaving a little cut fruit for them. However, we do not want them to become accustomed to being “looked after” by people and therefore this should only continue until the vegetation bounces back.
- Report any sightings of wildlife in places that they are not usually seen.
- Plant native plants in your yard and public areas, and control invasive species.
- Report observations of large animal die-offs both land and sea.
- Post sightings of the Bahama Parrots on New Providence on the following Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/306585349399107/
- Post sightings of Bahama Orioles on Andros on the following Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BahamaOrioleProject/
- Help the Bahamas National Trust to better manage our national parks so that we can continue to ensure a healthy environment where wildlife can survive in the face of a changing climate.