Many of you have asked me about the effects of September's Hurricane Fiona on PEI’s wildlife. Like most things in nature there is no simple answer: habitats have been enhanced for some species and diminished for others, and this will vary from site to site. The good news is the results of the storm won’t have any population-level impacts on the Island’s wild birds and mammals. Let’s take a look at some aspects of this.
The timing of the storm was good in that it was outside the breeding and nesting season for the Island’s wildlife. I’ve heard from many people concerned about bird nests that blew down (such as this American Robin nest, Photo 1).
The birds weren’t using their nests at this time of year, and it’s common for nests to blow down over the winter. Many birds don’t reuse old nests from year to year anyway, and those that do will rebuild at the beginning of the breeding season next spring. In areas where entire stands of trees have been felled, the birds that were nesting there will move to a nearby spot. An exception is Bald Eagles, who build and reuse large nests and are more selective about the types of trees they use. If an Eagle’s nest tree blew down, the pair may move to an entirely new area next spring, but that is unlikely to affect their survival.
Felled trees also create new habitat. Partially uprooted trees (Photo 2) can create overwintering habitats for Skunks and Raccoons, or breeding dens for Coyotes and Foxes.
Fully uprooted trees (Photo 3) contribute to the pit-and-mound topography that is an important feature of PEI’s forests. The holes left by these roots will fill with water and become temporary wetlands that are critical habitats for amphibians and reptiles.
As fallen trees start to decompose, they’ll create habitat for moisture-loving species such as Red-backed Salamanders. Standing but broken trees will provide future homes for cavity-nesting birds such as Chickadees and Nuthatches, as well as feeding sites for Woodpeckers.
There’s time (and decent weather) between when the storm hit and when cold winter weather set in for smaller mammals such as Chipmunks, Squirrels, Mice, Voles, and Shrews to build new nests and move their food caches if needed. I saw Red Squirrels on my own land doing this throughout October.
Downed trees and tree tops have created cover for prey species, making it more difficult for predators to catch them. That’s good for the prey (such as Grouse, Pheasant, Hare, and small mammals), less so for the predators (Owls, Hawks, Foxes, and Coyotes for example). This also puts previously inaccessible buds and twigs within reach of Snowshoe Hares. While these won’t hold their nutritional value forever, they do provide an added food source in the near term.
As a woodlot owner myself, I know all too well the impacts of Fiona on the aesthetic, recreational and economic values of the land. But as a biologist, I try to be heartened by the knowledge that PEI’s wildlife will be just fine.