Hurricane Sandy wasn't bad for all wildlife, according to a short article in Audubon magazine. The October tempest that destroyed parts of the Atlantic Coast also created habitat for some birds—outwash fans of sand for foraging piping plovers, nesting cavities for owls in standing dead trees, banquets of wood-boring insects for woodpeckers, sunny openings in the forest canopy to sprout shrubs that shelter golden-winged warblers.
Disturbances create opportunities—openings—for something new to develop. "After the Storm," in this issue, offers Will Weaver's perspective on the straight-line thunderstorm winds that ripped through the woods between Bemidji and Grand Rapids this past July. He laments the loss of a sentinel white pine on his land. A person might regard such an old-growth tree as a landmark of stability, as comforting as a beloved grandparent. But given the changes wrought by the storm, Weaver chooses a new point of view. He sees a chance to make something of the fallen trees.
In another part of the woods, Chippewa National Forest, wildlife biologist Kelly Barrett sees other possibilities. Her account of the same storm, "When the Wind Blows," appears on the Chippewa forest's website. She recalls her childhood sense of these north woods, where she now works. To explain some of the physics of wind and trees, she refers to the findings of Lee Frelich, research associate and director of the University of Minnesota Center for Forest Ecology: With increasing wind speeds, a tree's leaves turn sideways in line with the wind, thus reducing resistance. Then small branches flex so that twigs line up, and larger branches bend and streamline the tree profile. "Some conifers can reduce their surface area by 45 percent in the wind," she writes. "At some point, however, no more streamlining can be accomplished." Large trees are likely to topple first.
In the days, weeks, and years after a big storm, winners and losers emerge. For example, the Chippewa's population of rare black-backed woodpeckers could multiply as the birds feast on insects boring into broken pine trees. Aspens could sprout in mixed conifer forest openings.
Greg Hoch's story, "Sky Dancers," in this issue tells why young aspens and shrubs scattered in open places make perfect habitat for woodcocks. Populations of these woodsy shorebirds can thrive when logging, fire, storms, and other disturbances shape such clearings. As his story notes, golden-winged warblers might also benefit.
This species of wood warbler is declining dramatically across much of its breeding range. As home to about 42 percent of the world's breeding population of golden-winged warblers, Minnesota has an important opportunity to furnish habitat. These songbirds look for young hardwood forests, shrubby forest edges, alder swamps, and wet shrub-tamarack edges for nesting. On their way up north from Central and South America in spring, golden-winged warblers might also stop by trees or shrubs in your yard.
All over the planet, scientists are studying trees—in both tropical and temperate forests—to see how they work and how they might respond to changes. Natural disturbances are as sure to come as death and taxes. No matter how stable the neighborhood, sooner or later, a storm, fire, plague of insects, or some other force of nature will ravage a forest. In The Tapir's Morning Bath, an account of rain forest research, Elizabeth Royte writes, "The forest, it seems, is in perpetual motion. But what sets this motion off? Apparently, it is the weather."
Depending on which way the wind blows, and all kinds of other uncontrollable circumstances, a creature might be lucky or not. Yet, like Will Weaver, everyone has a choice of what to make of the changes.
Kathleen Weflen, editor