Experts fear worst for barrier island wildlife after Sandy

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Cindy Nevitt / Before the storm, wildlife on barrier islands was so plentiful as to be a nuisance to some residents. This raccoon was trapped in Ocean City days before Sandy tore up the Jersey Shore and took a presumably heavy toll on four-legged inhabitants. Cindy Nevitt / Before the storm, wildlife on barrier islands was so plentiful as to be a nuisance to some residents. This raccoon was trapped in Ocean City days before Sandy tore up the Jersey Shore and took a presumably heavy toll on four-legged inhabitants.

Steve Serwatka has been rescuing animals for 20 years and often finds his busiest times immediately after a severe storm. But that, he and other wildlife experts said, hasn’t been the case on the barrier islands since Super Storm Sandy hit.

“I think it was bad,” said Serwatka, director of New Jersey Nature, a non-profit organization for animal rehabilitation headquartered in Dennis Township. “I’m the most optimistic person, but I think things fared pretty badly.”

As evidence, he points to the dearth of wildlife on the islands in the wake of Sandy’s Oct. 29 devastation. With the exception of migratory birds, which weren’t here when Sandy was, Serwatka says he hasn’t seen many promising signs of animal life.

“As far as wildlife, we noticed none for the first few days after the storm,” said Bill Hollingsworth, director of the Humane Society of Ocean City. “We only recovered dead birds and rabbits after the storm. Nothing else.”

Andrew Burnett, a New Jersey Fish and Wildlife biologist, said rabbits – as well as other terrestrial creatures that are unable to climb – are among those animals least likely to have survived the fury of Sandy.

“If anything burrows, like rabbits, and there’s flooding, those animals are going to drown,” Burnett said. “Even land-based turtles would have been killed.”

“That would be a pretty lucky rabbit,” Serwatka said of any that survived. 

“It would have had to have all four paws working in its favor,” he added, referencing the lucky rabbit’s foot. 

When even fish and frogs, forms of life that are designed to swim and live in watery environments, are found dead on lawns and streets after such a storm, it is pretty much a given that four-legged animals would be imperiled in a flood, he said. Because it is not uncommon for heavy rains to kill certain amphibians, such deluges are sometimes referred to as “toad stranglers” and “frog stranglers.”

Both Serwatka and Burnett said they have no reason to believe the barrier islands’ resident wildlife outpaced the storm and found shelter before Sandy struck.

“That's more romantic than what we really think happens,” Serwatka said.

Speaking of the widely held belief that animal intuition drives land creatures to seek higher ground when a storm threatens, he said, “I don't buy a lot of that.

“We're pretty smart animals and I wouldn't know a storm was coming unless the lady on the news was telling me it was.”

Burnett agreed.

“I don't think they're that smart to know a hurricane is coming and they've got to get out of here,” he said of wildlife, which has at times included minks and coyotes. “I don't think they're cognizant of how bad it is going to be.”

However, the men all said there is a chance some wildlife on the barrier islands outwitted Mother Nature as she delivered an unrelenting assault.

“Not every place was covered with water,” said Burnett, the state's only upland biologist for game animals that are openly hunted and trapped. “So if the water was not terribly deep or the current terribly strong, it’s possible some animals survived.”

“Animals are resourceful,” said Paul Dietrich, Upper Township engineer.

Dietrich, in his role as director of public works, has toured Strathmere in the two and a half weeks since Sandy struck and reports animal carcasses “are not showing up in any quantity in the debris.”

“All the barrier island have high spots animals could get up into,” he said, mentioning the dunes in Avalon as among the highest points in Cape May County.

Likeliest survivors of Sandy, Serwatka and Burnett said, were those animals that could climb, such as raccoons. Red foxes, they said, are clever enough to have survived, and anecdotal evidence indicates some did as homeowners in Ocean City’s south end reported seeing the adaptable mammals seeking shelter on house porches while the island was flooded. Hollingsworth, of Ocean City, verified that a small group of red foxes, and even some deer, were recently sighted in the south end of the island.

“Foxes are agile, so they had a chance,” said Serwatka, who handles animal control for Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic counties. “Raccoons can go up a tree. Opossums would just have to paddle around. Your average skunk might be able to weather it out.”

However, Serwatka said, evidence of that is to the contrary. Usually he receives a few calls a week from Avalon homeowners pestered by skunks, but since Sandy's landfall, he said he hasn't received any calls requesting his services in the borough.

“In those places where there are problems with skunks, the good news is the skunk problem has probably been abated a bit,” Burnett said, adding he was “trying to find a ray of sunshine” in the midst of so much bleak news.

Dietrich concurred, saying “undesirable animal populations” such as skunks and feral cats were most likely the most adversely affected by Sandy.

“It will probably take until next summer to get a feel for how much has been lost,” he said.

But Burnett said that may never be known.

“No one knows what the wildlife population was out on the barrier islands to begin with,” he said.

Hollingsworth said he is seeing hopeful signs now.

“Bunnies were seen around the shelter for the first time this morning,” he said on the 17th day after the storm.

“We'll see in two weeks or so,” Serwatka said of the short-term toll the storm took on the barrier islands' wildlife. “Time will show.”

Then, sounding more like the optimist he calls himself, he said, ”Whatever is gone, it will be replaced. Life gets on.”

Cindy Nevitt / A sign of the cycle of wildlife returning to normal on the barrier islands: Migratory birds have been seen in the area, feeding and watering on their way south. These Canada geese made a recent stopover to the meadows near the Intracoastal Waterway in Ocean City. Cindy Nevitt / A sign of the cycle of wildlife returning to normal on the barrier islands: Migratory birds have been seen in the area, feeding and watering on their way south. These Canada geese made a recent stopover to the meadows near the Intracoastal Waterway in Ocean City.


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