The good, the not-so-good and the missing: how animals have fared in Sanibel after Ian
People living on Sanibel and Captiva weren’t the only ones driven from their homes by Hurricane Ian’s churning storm surge.
Wildlife, amphibians and birds were displaced. Some species have come back fine, others are struggling to survive while others yet remain missing-in-action.
Saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico inundated Sanibel’s fresh-water system turning it brackish. Many animals and amphibians don’t tolerate salt, said Chris Lechowicz, director of wildlife and habitat management for Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Association.
“It’s going to be a few years before we really get an idea of how everything did,” he said. “Just because something survived immediately after the hurricane does not mean that it is going to be here a year later.”
Sanibel only had one heavy rain after Hurricane Ian before going into the dry season and the current rainy season has been anything but rainy. Lechowicz was hoping heavy rainfall would wash away the brackish water.
“The outlook of some of these species is still unknown, most of the areas on the island are still pretty brackish,” he said.
Impounded lakes, those dug for home communities and have nowhere to flow to, were flourishing with freshwater fish, snakes, turtles and other amphibians, but are highly brackish now and the fish are gone, Lechowicz said.
“We have a lot of residents who are asking us when it will become fresh again and that’s a big unknown,” he said. “If it dries up, the salt still stays there.
“It might not be how it was for a very long time. It will take lots of rainfall, flooding that way, getting some of that water out to getting it to change. It’s not an overnight fix.”
Lechowicz returned to Sanibel four days after the storm, to silence.
The first thing he saw were iguanas, lots of them.
“It was like they were waiting for this their whole lives,” he said, “They took over the island.”
The second thing he saw were coyotes. Larger animals like coyotes and bobcats did OK, he said.
Much of the vegetation where alligators hide died after the hurricane, so alligators became visible. They also went hunting for food because the fish, snakes and turtles died in the brackish water.
“Alligators didn’t have a lot of food sources for a while,” Lechowicz said.
“I’m not sure how that’s going now, but a lot of the vegetation has grown back so people aren’t seeing as many as they were right after the hurricane.”
The first survey after the storm, in October, found fewer birds, but that was to be expected, said Audrey Albrecht, shorebird biologist for the conservation association.
“That didn’t mean the birds were dead, it just means they went somewhere else,” she said.
Survey numbers were back to normal by December, she said.
The 10 eagle nests the conversancy monitored were destroyed but nine pairs of eagles rebuilt nests, she said.
Some of the small fish, like mosquito fish, have been spotted and Lechowicz is confident they will bounce back. He’s not as confident about the game fish like bluegill, sun fish and large-mouth bass. They were brought to the island in the 1960s so people would have freshwater fish to catch.
“We have not seen any of these game fish since the hurricane,” he said. “It’s very possible that we may have lost them.”
The conservation association did a gopher tortoise survey in January and found a 30 percent loss on four properties and almost a 100 percent loss on another.
The property with no active burrows was near the beach, Lechowicz said.
He said some of the tortoises probably drowned when they got trapped in their burrows.
He expects the number of burrows will go up when they do the survey again in October.
“Box turtles did amazing,” he said.
Storm surge swept away the contents of condos along the beach, but the box turtle, living near the condos survived.
“The condos are gone, and the turtles didn’t move,” he said. “They dug the front half of their shells into the sand and just held on.”
All the turtles that the conservation association tagged with radios are accounted for, he said.
One box turtle did go for a ride. It was found in the Cape Coral canal system a month after the hurricane, he said.
The conservation association lists six species as missing, two frog species, pig frog and green tree; two mammals, the Virginia opossum and nine-banded armadillo; one snake, the Florida brown snake and one native lizard, the ground skink.
Lechowicz thinks the green frog survived, but he hasn’t been able to verify it yet.
The pig frog is the equivalent of a Southern bull frog. They aren’t native to Sanibel.
“Those are a freshwater frog; they don’t take to saltwater very well. We haven’t heard one of those since,” he said.
The missing opossums are a mystery, Lechowicz said, because they are like raccoons, which survived the storm.
“We’re not sure why because they could have gone up in the trees like raccoons did. So, we don’t have an explanation on why we haven’t seen them yet,” he said.
The missing armadillos dig burrows and storm surge probably filled up the burrows and they drowned, he said.
Lechowicz thinks the Florida brown snake will show up in the next year. It’s an animal you don’t go looking for because they are hard to find.
The ground skink is the rarest lizard on the island, he said. He hasn’t seen one since the storm.
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