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Efforts under way to determine impact of Sandy on region's shore birds

By Judy Benson

Publication: The Day

Published January 12. 2013 4:00AM

Superstorm Sandy altered many of the state's most important nesting areas for shorebirds, including the Goshen Cove area of Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford and Bushy Point beach at Bluff Point State Park in Groton, but how that will impact the endangered piping plovers and least terns that depend on those two areas isn't clear.

To understand what the changes will mean for these two areas, considered critical because there are few coastal areas for these birds to nest, the Connecticut Audubon Society is advocating elevation surveys, monitoring and assessment this spring when the birds return.

The elevation surveys would determine how much area is left above the high-tide line for nesting, and monitors visiting the sites would learn how many birds return and successfully fledge offspring compared to previous years, said Anthony Zemba, director of conservation services for Connecticut Audubon.

"Some (birds) have high fidelity to particular spots and others will seek out other areas," Zemba said Friday. "But it remains to be seen whether they'll be successful at finding new sites because they're habitat-limited, especially with the way Connecticut's coast is all carved up."

On Thursday the Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbird Conservation released a report assessing the impacts of Sandy on nesting areas from Virginia to Massachusetts. The report estimates that $48.7 million is needed to restore coastal habitats by removing debris, repairing docks and other structures critical for access, fixing water-control structures to preserve wetland hydrology and other steps.

Connecticut Audubon, one of the groups in the alliance, contributed to the report with information from visits by its staff to six of the most important nesting sites along the state's coastline, among them Harkness and Bluff Point. Also visited were two areas in West Haven and one each in Milford and Stratford. Staff tried to visit a seventh site, Griswold Point in Old Lyme, but it was inaccessible after the storm severed the barrier beach from the mainland.

At the Bushy Point barrier beach at Bluff Point, dunes were flattened and sand deposited into the adjacent Poquonnock River wetlands as a result of the storm. There is still beach above the high-tide line suitable for nesting, but how much hasn't been quantified, Zemba said.

At Harkness, the Goshen Cove channel at the eastern end of the nesting area moved to the west and widened. Some of the elevated beach areas the birds used were lost, Zemba said. But the remaining areas may be better protected from predators and human disturbance because the widened cove will make them harder to access.

Rather than take immediate action to try to restore these two areas to what they were like before the storm, he said, "it may be best to let the birds be the indicator, and show us where they'll choose to nest again."

After that, grants could be sought for projects to restore or improve the areas.

Jenny Dickson, wildlife biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said that since the storm, DEEP crews have removed debris from the two sites but have otherwise left them alone. Based on initial assessments, she said, it appears the areas suitable for plover and tern nesting are actually larger than before, due to the flattening of some dunes and movement of sand.

"From the plovers' perspective, it could be habitat enhancement," she said.

j.benson@theday.com

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Read the report

The "Hurricane Sandy Rapid Assessment" report can be found at: http://www.ctaudubon.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Hurricane-Sandy-Assessment-Report.pdf

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