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Wildlife officials assess the toll from rain, floods

The recent downpour that dumped more than 10 inches of rain on the eastern end of the Merrimack Valley showed even Mother Nature can be very hard on the environment.

Rivers turned into befouled torrents that sparked a new red tide, while turtles, fish, beavers, and birds struggled to cope in the middle of mating season. As rivers drop and the floodplains drain, experts are assessing the damage.

Following a devastating red tide last year, a new outbreak of the toxic algae is being fed in large part by what came out of the Merrimack River during the storm. It has shut down the Joppa Flats at the mouth of the river, a stretch of shoreline that was reopened to clamming in mid-March, after being closed for decades because of pollution.

``There are a lot of clams out there," said Ray Pike, Salisbury's shellfish constable.

``To this region, that could be a $1 million industry, and I've had some people come along and say to me it could be even more."

There is no way of knowing how long the flats will stay closed, said Michael Hickey, the chief shellfish biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. With local sewer plants overwhelmed by the storm's runoff, the nutrient-rich wastewater they dumped into the Merrimack created ideal conditions for another full-blown red tide event, Hickey said.

``The potential is there," he said. ``Nobody can predict these things, but conventional thinking of just about everybody involved is that it's much more likely now that we could have a big coast-wide bloom. The possibility certainly exists."

While the rains washed away the first batch of mosquito larvae, raising hopes that the threat of Eastern equine encephalitis might decrease, the storm left little other good environmental news in its wake.

The Merrimack deposited mountains of debris along the north shore of Plum Island, prompting the state to call out the National Guard to clean it up. The mess arrived just as piping plover nesting season was getting underway, said Frank Drauszewski, deputy director of the Parker River Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island.

``The rain did impact nesting," he said. ``But the birds continue to nest into the end of May."

The purple martins out on Plum Island weren't so lucky. The birds may not have had sustenance for nearly a week, said Bill Gette, director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Joppa Flats headquarters in Newburyport.

The birds feast on mosquitoes this time of year in the marshes lining Plum Island's western shore. But in driving rain, mosquitoes don't fly, leaving little food for these birds to eat as they prepare to lay their eggs, Gette said.

``The purple martins went for an entire week without being able to feed, so I'm sure that we lost a lot of them due to starvation," Gette said.

``These birds are perfectly capable of going for a few days without food, but they can't go an entire week."

Other casualties include the area's only two baby bald eagles, nesting in Haverhill.

For the past few winters, eagles have been returning to feed in the Merrimack Valley, but last year, the area's first nesting pair stayed year-round, raising two chicks. This year the same pair had two more chicks, which were doing fine until the rains came.

``It's sad news. We don't see the adults feeding the chicks. There's no activity going on at the nest," said Pat Huckery, head of the Northeast Wildlife District for the state's Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. ``When the flood waters come up, it makes it hard for the adults to find food, and the longer they are off the nest, the harder it is on the babies."

Wild turkeys possibly lost a lot of eggs to the rain and flooding, said Jim Cardoza, the turkey project leader with MassWildlife. Hard rains this time last year washed out some wild turkey nests, Cardoza said. Given the intensity of the storms this year, the death toll could be higher.

``Particularly on the North Shore where you had all that flooding," he said. ``Anywhere the turkeys nested in a depression in the woods they could have had a problem. But they can still re-nest and lay new eggs. They did so last year."

Birds weren't the only ones bothered by all the rain. Anything that lives on the ground close to water possibly saw some young die, and that includes some rare species of turtles.

Among them are the spotted, Blanding's, and wood turtles, said Mark Grgurovic, who is conducting state surveys of the animals throughout the Merrimack Valley. Many nesting sites for these species were under water, but their nesting season is just getting underway. Grgurovic said he's hoping for the best.

``The high rains flushed some turtles out. That may be true with wood turtles," he said. ``Wood turtles are not great swimmers. They could get washed downstream."

The Merrimack River hit a 70-year high when it crested around 7 p.m. on May 15. At the same time, alewife, herring, and even a few salmon were starting their spawning runs upriver to swollen streams, ponds, and rivers all over the North Shore, said Brad Chase, an aquatic biologist for the state's Department of Marine Fisheries.

``Any eggs deposited in these rivers were most likely flushed out to sea," he said. ``The big concern would be for the blue-back herring, which spawn in the rivers. Large water bodies like that and some of the area's small ponds had a lot of current flowing through them."

Even beavers, which create a lot of their own flood damage, struggled somewhat during the worst of the storm, said Colleen Olfenbuttel, the leader of the beaver project for MassWildlife.

Baby beavers had just been born when the rains came. And while they learn to swim within a week, the flood was bad timing even for them, she said.

``Some of their dams and possibly lodges might have been flooded or washed out where most of the severe flooding occurred," Olfenbuttel said. ``But most beavers can handle this type of weather."

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