Hurricane Sandy and engineered response created habitat for a threatened shorebird


The intensity of Atlantic Ocean hurricanes is predicted to increase, and although disturbance is recognized as a fundamental driver of ecological processes, the benefits of hurricanes to ecological systems are seldom acknowledged. In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy overwashed Fire Island and Westhampton Island, New York. The storm flattened dunes, buried vegetation, and breached the barrier islands in several places. To reduce future overwashing, engineers attempted to stabilize the islands. We studied nest-site selection, suitable habitat, and abundance of a threatened shorebird, the piping plover (Charadrius melodus), before and after Hurricane Sandy. Prior to the hurricane, piping plovers selected nest sites (n = 62) farther from the ocean (x least-cost distance = 82.8 m) and bay (x Euclidean distance = 697.7 m; x least-cost distance = 24,160.6 m) than would be expected if they were selecting nest sites at random. Following the hurricane, piping plovers selected nest sites (n = 45) predominantly in or near storm overwash habitat, which was close to, and had unobstructed walking access to, the ocean (x least-cost distance = 123.4 m) and newly created bayside foraging habitats (x Euclidean distance = 468.0 m; x least-cost distance = 728.9 m). Areas overwashed by the hurricane contained the most suitable piping plover habitat across all new habitat types. Piping plover abundance increased 93% by 2018 from pre-Hurricane Sandy abundances, with most pairs nesting in new habitats. However, only 58% of suitable piping plover habitat was protected from recreational use and few piping plovers used unprotected habitats for nesting. Our results suggest that the ecological benefits of increased storminess may be maximized by coupling coastal stabilization with targeted conservation of storm-created habitats.



barrier island, conservation, early-successional, habitat change, Hurricane Sandy, piping plover, recreational use, suitable habitat, threatened species


Walker, K. M., J. D. Fraser, D. H. Catlin, S. J. Ritter, S. G. Robinson, H. A. Bellman, A. DeRose-Wilson, S. M. Karpanty, and S. T. Papa. 2019. Hurricane Sandy and engineered response created habitat for a threatened shorebird. Ecosphere 10(6):e02771. 10.1002/ecs2.2771