A week ago today, I was riding with Ryan Tomazin to Pittsburgh International Airport. We’d just been at the Brooks Bird Club’s 80th birthday bash. Despite the dreary weather, a good time was had by all. I mean, what’s not to like about a Chan Robbins keynote, all-you-can-eat buffets, and even a vintage Ms. Pac-Man machine. (Inside joke; some of you will get it. The rest of you, just laugh along.)
On the ride back to the airport, though, I was just a tad apprehensive. The storm of the century was on its way. It had been raining steadily for a few hours now, and the temperature was down into the low 40s. There were already reports of cancelled flights, and I wondered if I would be impacted.
“We’re coming up on Cheat Lake,” Ryan announced.
Cheat Lake is a huge reservoir just south of the Pennsylvania line. It’s one of the best places in West Virginia for water birds.
Ryan asked, “Do you see anything?”
In fact, there were birds down there.
“Canada Geese…I guess.”
At the airport, the flight board was lighting up with that dreaded sequence of letters: C-A-N-C-E-L-L-E-D. My flight was westbound, however, and I was back in Denver that night. Whew.
When I checked my email the next morning, Ryan was in full-on I-told-you-so mode. An epic fallout was under way at Cheat Lake, and the action had started just an hour or so before Ryan and I had driven over the I-68 causeway late Sunday afternoon. My “Canada Geese,” it turns
out, were probably Atlantic Brant. Morgantown birder John Boback had found 20+ on the lake, and John and others were reporting lots of scoters, loons, and whatnot. Those are fine birds for inland West Virginia. Ryan, if you’re out there, please forgive me for the blown call.
This was only the beginning.
The next day, I got an email from Mike Fialkovich, a birding pal from my late teen years. He described what has to be one of the most astonishing birding phenomena I’ve ever heard of.
First, a bit of context. It was Tuesday, October 30th, “The Day After” for folks along the New Jersey and New York coastlines. In southwestern Pennsylvania, where Mike lives, Tuesday was the day they’ll never forget.
Spurred on a report by not just one, but two, rare Pomarine Jaegers at Green Run Lake, Fayette County, Pennsylvania, Mike stopped by after work on Tuesday. Nearing the lake, he noticed a decent flock of “gulls.”
Except they weren’t gulls.
They were jaegers, some twenty-nine (29) of them, mostly or maybe entirely Pomarines. Seeing just one (1) jaeger of any species is a thrill for me. Seeing one way inland in Fayette County would be especially impressive. But 29?! I’ve never seen that many jaegers in a flock at sea. I’ve never seen that many on the nesting grounds. I really can’t wrap my
brain around the idea of 29 jaegers all in one spot. Yet there were, out on the lake, then all picking up, then landing again, then rising again, and so forth.
Left: Pomarine Jaeger. Photo by Nate Swick.
Other birders had arrived, and they and Mike watched in awe. After a while, the birds rose up again in the swirling snow, kettled like hawks, and flew off into the snowstorm.
I can’t think of a more potent symbol of Sandy’s might than Mike Fialkovich’s 29 jaegers swirling in the snow at Green Run Lake. Strong
hurricanes blow powerful seabirds inland; Sandy was notably strong, and Poms are inarguably powerful. Yes, Sandy was strong, but Sandy was no mere hurricane. That’s a lesson that was affirmed for Pittsburgh birder Jack Solomon and me two nights before Sandy’s landfall.
It was the last night of the Brooks Bird Club meeting, and it was getting on toward midnight. Jack had been teasing me—he’s been doing that for 30 years—about the folly of standing in cold rain listening for nocturnal flight calls.
“Let’s take it outside, Jack.”
The instant we walked out of the lodge at Blackwater Falls State Park, we heard buzzy flight calls, loud and clear. Jack was genuinely impressed, but bedtime or the bar—I’m not sure which—beckoned, and he went back in. Me, too, to get my VN-8100PC. When I got back outside, the birds were still going at it, still going over.
The experience was mesmerizing. I thought I heard a few Common Yellowthroats, and maybe a Palm Warbler. But what were all those other calls? Well, I was recording them, and I’d find out after I got back to Denver.
To cut to the chase, they were almost all Blackpoll Warblers. They were up there, calling constantly, pretty much the whole time I was there. Bill Evans has cautioned that I may have been hearing a lot of repeats—birds circling around the relatively bright lights of the lodge. I suspect he’s right; however, for reasons that I won’t bother you with, I also think there was a steady passage of birds that night.
Blackpoll Warblers recorded on nocturnal migration over Blackwater Falls State Park, near Davis, Tucker County,
West Virginia, 11:15-11:20 p.m., Saturday, October 27, 2010. Recordings by Ted Floyd.
The whole time I was out there, winds were light but steady out of the north; it was foggy, and a very light rain—more of a mist, really—was falling. This was the other half of what would become Superstorm Sandy; this was the cold front. The birds—the Blackpolls, a few other warblers, a Hermit Thrush, a White-throated Sparrow—were getting out ahead of the storm. Forty-eight hours later, Blackwater Falls would be under a blizzard warning.
I just thought of something: My Sandy story starts even earlier in the week.
On Wednesday evening, Oct. 24th, I was getting ready for my travel the next day to Pennsylvania and West Virginia. I had a zillion and one things to deal with, but my kids would have none of it.
“It’s snowing! It’s snowing!”
It was indeed snowing—a lot harder than I had thought it would. A quick check of the Denver Post’s website informed me that forecasters had “beefed up”their forecast; at least half a foot would fall on Denver, and then there would be another shot Thursday night into Friday. It was all part of the same system that would eventually make its way east to combine with Hurricane Sandy, and then transmogrify into Superstorm
The reach of Sandy was long indeed. Fortunately, I was spared the worst of it. I got out of West Virginia before the blizzard. My Sunday night flight from Pittsburgh took me west, not east. Nevertheless, I experienced Sandy at three different, if somewhat peripheral, levels: With Ryan Tomazin, I witnessed the beginning of the historic Pennsylvania–West Virginia fallout; with Jack Solomon, I listened to the anxious flight calls of warblers leaving ahead of the storm; and with my kids, I got to see what I now know to be the precursor of it all.
I said three levels, but, you know, there’s a fourth level.
I wasn’t there with Mike Fialkovich, but his story is nevertheless spellbinding for me. What can I say?—I enjoy vicarious birding. I love hearing other birders’ stories.
On that note, perhaps my favorite Sandy story involves ABA President Jeff Gordon. Jeff had been at the Cape May Autumn Weekend, and he couldn’t make it out on time. After a few days stranded in the Philadelphia area, Jeff finally booked a flight through Chicago. Now despite what Winging It Editor and native Midwesterner Michael Retter may say, Chicago’s airports are cursed. And Jeff’s experience there proves it. His flight out of Midway was greatly delayed because of—wait for it—a busted toilet. In fact, the lavatory was so crippled, they gave the passengers a whole new airplane.
Enough. If I haven’t lost count, that’s five Sandy stories now. Some of them involve no birds. Some of them don’t involve me. Some of them involve neither birds nor me. But all of them involve birders, in some way or another.
Sandy affected so many of us.
Let’s hear your Sandy story or stories. One request: Please include the human dimension of your story. Whom were you with? How did you and your companions cope? Yes, tell us about jaeger fallouts and Blackpoll night-flights; but we also want to hear about Ms. Pac-Man machines and busted airplane toilets.
And, on a serious note, I’m sure I’m speaking on behalf of all my colleagues at the ABA when I say that I’m well aware of Sandy’s terrible toll.
Jeff Gordon and I and others on staff are blessed to have gotten through it safely, but we know that other ABA members weren’t as fortunate. (For those birders interested in helping those who have seen the worst of this storm, the American Red Cross disaster relief fund is a worthy outlet.)
If there’s a silver lining in the cloud of Sandy, it’s the indelible reminder that we’re all in this thing together. Please use the “comments” section below to tell us how you and your birding friends were affected by Sandy.