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How Hurricanes Affect Rare Bird Movements

By Marshall Iliff
White-tailed tropicbirds
White-tailed tropicbirds. Photo by Tom Johnson.

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As destructive and dangerous as they can be, hurricanes can make for legendary birding. Strong winds push seabirds from tropical waters to northern shores or far inland—and these days birders are primed to find them, using smartphones to stay on top of weather forecasts and safety warnings, and to instantly trade sightings. After a storm passes, the eBird project, jointly run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, provides a single location for storm sightings to be collated, mapped, and studied.

I waited out Tropical Storm Irene on the shores of Quabbin Reservoir, central Massachusetts. As the storm approached, the rain pelted and the winds slowly intensified to about 45 mph by about 1:00 p.m. That’s when my friends and I saw our first storm bird—a Parasitic Jaeger— and next a flock of Hudsonian Godwits.

Around 4:00 p.m., a few Black Terns and two distant jaegers signaled a shift in the wind. The next hour of birding was one of the most exciting of my life. An odd bird high in the sky baffled me at first, but it turned and revealed a long tail—an adult White-tailed Tropicbird, at least 800 miles from home! Next, an adult Sooty Tern flew through my field of view. Sooty Terns range widely, but they’re never seen north of the Carolinas except during storms. I had half-expected to see the terns, but was completely shocked by the tropicbird. My day was capped off with an incongruous sighting of a Leach’s Storm-Petrel, usually an open-ocean bird that stays low to the water, flying high in the sky and heading south over the woods.

Hurricane Irene turned into a truly historic storm for birders, as hundreds of eBird reports filed from the storm’s path made clear. It was the best storm ever for White-tailed Tropicbirds—a total of 14 showed up, one getting as far as New Hampshire. Sooty Terns—the quintessential storm bird—were seen in a dozen states; similar-looking Bridled Terns were displaced as well, but as in previous storms they stayed along the coasts. Leach’s and Wilson’s storm-petrels appeared far inland. Grounded shorebirds were seen all over, with Hudsonian Godwits being the star attraction. Irene also brought two non-seabird rarities: a Black Swift to New Jersey (most likely from a small population in the Caribbean) and a Great Kiskadee to New York City. Both were first records for the East Coast.

With sightings from Irene and Tropical Storm Lee (which struck the Gulf Coast the week after) so well documented in eBird, the storms of 2011 may offer new insights into how storms affect birds. We know that size, strength, path, and speed of a storm all have different effects, and we look forward to exploring the details more fully. Thanks to everyone who contributes sightings—rare or mundane—to

Originally published in the Autumn 2011 issue of BirdScope.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library