Nature Connection: After The Storms Blow Through

by Mary Richmond
Winter colors can be beautiful. MARY RICHMOND ILLUSTRATION Winter colors can be beautiful. MARY RICHMOND ILLUSTRATION

Winter has been showing us her stuff over this last week or so with a little rain, sleet, hail, snow, ice, rain, sleet, repeat. If you’re new to the Cape, welcome to a Cape Cod winter, where the weather changes every few moments.

The last few storms have come in from the south, driving already high new moon tides to even higher encroachments along our coast. If you live near the shore, you’re well aware of the flooding that occurred as well as the erosion of already sand-starved areas. Our shoreline is always changing and each year we have at least one or two storms that threaten what we thought we knew about our coastline.

The one thing we can be sure of? It will continue to change and often in unpredictable ways. Although many changes are ongoing and natural, others are being exacerbated by climate change and the resulting sea level rise. Recent storms flooded many areas that never flooded before, and the storms weren’t even that ferocious. Hopefully we are taking note and making appropriate changes as a result, but in many cases those changes feel overwhelming to even contemplate. Ignoring them, however, will be even worse.

All storms can cause serious trouble for area wildlife and plants. Areas that flood with salt water regularly are populated by plants that have adapted to occasionally saltwater inundations, but others have not. A single flooding will not usually kill most plants, but continued flooding can cause problems for them. Their growth can be stunted, or they may simply not recover from the shock and die.

Birds and animals are generally more mobile than plants and can leave an area that is a danger to them, but not always. Some seabirds get trapped by the tide or blown onto the shore. Dovekies and gannets are two birds heavily impacted by onshore winds. These pelagic birds spend almost their whole lives on the open seas and are equipped to take off from water, not land. If they get blown onto a beach or a parking lot, they will be stranded.

If they are not rescued, they may die of exposure or starve to death if not killed by a predator. If you see one of these birds, please call Wild Care or the Cape Cod Wildlife Center and tell them where you found the bird so they can rescue it. Please don’t just put it back in the water as it may need medical attention. Sometimes these birds land far away from the sea and may even show up in your inland backyard.

Many animals take shelter during a storm. Some, like squirrels, will hole up in their cozy nests for a few days waiting for the worst of it to pass. Others, such as coyotes and red foxes may take refuge in a protected area for the worst of the storm, but they are also opportunistic enough to hunt during bad weather. Many of their prey animals, such as deer and even rabbits, can become hungry, careless, and disoriented during inclement weather, making them easier targets.

After a storm, when the rain and wind have cleared, you may find that birds especially become very active. Although some birds can find a protected area near a feeder to rest during a storm, making occasional forays to the feeder, many stay put for as long as they can to avoid being blown about, losing precious energy, or becoming prey. Many hawks also stay quiet during a storm, but if they see a hapless bird or small mammal struggling in bad weather, they will take advantage of the situation. When the weather clears, your feeders, as well as the neighborhood hawks, may get very busy.

The sun already seems to be sitting a little higher in the sky and mornings and late afternoons are noticeably lighter. Spring is still a faraway dream, but it won’t be long before we see signs that she’s thinking about returning. Buds will begin to swell, birds will start to sing, and many of our mammals will start acting frisky, if not downright amorous.

Now is a great time to be out and about. Dress for the weather but get outside and enjoy the relative solitude this time of year offers. Roads are less crowded, and many beaches are almost devoid of humans. It’s one of my favorite seasons, this time of quiet reflection and rejuvenation.

Many conservation organizations and town land trusts offer a wide selection of winter programs, so if you want to learn more about the ecology or history of Cape Cod, now may be the best time to attend one of them. Look up sites that teach bird songs so you’ll be ready to listen for and identify spring migrants. Spend some quality time with a wildflower book or look for unusual shells on your beach walks.

As I write the sun is shining, the temperatures are dropping and yet another storm is predicted to land in the next few days. It must be winter. Grab your wooly hats and mittens and get outside. You’ll be glad you did.