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    Tell Us Your Sandy Stories

    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.)

    CancelledOn 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.”


    Ryan kept on driving.

    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.

    PomJaeThey 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 2 Blackpoll 3Blackpoll 4Blackpoll 1

    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
    Sandy.

    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.

    ToiletOn 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.

     

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    Ted Floyd

    Ted Floyd

    Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
    Ted Floyd

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    • http://www.facebook.com/Birding.Aboard Diana Doyle

      Because I live on a boat, hurricanes are an important part of my life (our insurance even dictates what latitudes we can and cannot be during particular months). I end up experiencing hurricanes in a very intimate, outdoors, and involved way, practically riding out the wind and wet with the elements. Sandy was my third named storm (Irene and Beryl) in the past 18 months.

      In the 48 hours before, I sense the birds start to move and flock up. In North Carolina with Sandy, the Tree Swallows, Laughing Gulls, and Double-crested Cormorants were suddenly grouped in the hundreds.

      As the storm passes overhead, birds—or any sign of life—becomes incredibly scarce. It’s not unusual that hours will pass with not a single bird in the sky. I still go out birding to eBird log what I can find. I watch the skies from inside the boat. Sometimes there are small groups of waterbirds that ride it out in the lee of our boat or in a sheltered cove. During Sandy, one determined American Kestrel continued to perch in the open and attempt to hunt.

      For the 24-48 hours after the storm, there is incredible movement. The sunrise after Sandy passed, the dawn sky was streaming with southbound migrants (mostly robins, blackbird sp, warbler sp.) I don’t ever get the great pelagic rarity fallouts, which tend to happen in the dangerous quadrant (by planning I need to be on the “good” side of an anticyclonic event!). But usually the numbers and diversity of species is high the morning after the storm passes. With Sandy, I most enjoyed watching a flock of 10 Wilson’s Snipe fly in to feed and rest for a couple of days in a flooded field.

    • Terry Bronson

      Ted,

      Here’s what you missed at Cheat Lake. To many these numbers may not be all that high, but WV is in between the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways, and numbers of some of these species may well be state records, or near to it.

      Highest counts on a single day, Oct. 28-Nov. 3. Numbers peaked from Sunday through Tuesday for most species, then tailed off as the week wound down. Because the peak occurred so early in the week, the fallout was almost entirely due to the cold front passing through–not Hurricane Sandy. Note: On Tuesday, Oct. 30, the entire north end of the lake at Cheat Lake Park was inaccessible, so some counts may well be understated considerably.

      Tundra Swan–23
      Canada Goose–103
      Brant–22
      Wood Duck–34
      Gadwall–103
      American Wigeon–131
      American Black Duck–only 6. Can you believe it?
      Mallard–196
      Northern Pintail–15
      Northern Shoveler–14
      Green-winged Teal–4
      Ring-necked Duck–286
      Greater Scaup–6. Quite rare in the state. Almost all Scaup seen are Lessers.
      Lesser Scaup–530
      Redhead–2
      Bufflehead–760
      Surf Scoter–25
      White-winged Scoter–4
      Black Scoter–7
      Hooded Merganser–61
      Red-breasted Merganser–3
      Ruddy Duck–4,129 plus hundreds more at Cheat Lake Park, which was inaccessible on Tuesday. The undisputed star of the fallout.
      Double-crested Cormorant–267, with most being flyover flocks.
      Common Loon–58
      Pied-billed Grebe–70
      Horned Grebe–31
      American Coot–487
      Bonaparte’s Gull–17
      Ring-billed Gull–43
      Herring Gull–3
      Common Tern–1

    • Ryan Tomazin

      Ted, I and others had a blast in WV, and if only the fog on the highway cleared BEFORE we passed the exit for the lake… In hindsight, the birds on the lake did feel more two-toned than multi-colored, so Brant sounds fine to me. I got mine yesterday at Yellow Creek State Park with the Todd bird club.

      More odd birds that can be attributed to Sandy in Pittsburgh include 2 Black Skimmers that showed up today in McKees Rocks, just down the Ohio River a few miles from the city. A Pacific Loon was found today in Washington County, PA, and a Varied Thrush was found in eastern PA yesterday. I have no problem calling this the most historic week in Pennsylvania birding history. This includes a wealth of Golden Eagles that got stuck up north in a holding pattern before shattering daily records this week at many PA hawk watches (imagine seeing 38 Golden Eagles in just a few hours in eastern PA). We are now getting reports left and right of Evening Grosbeaks, Red & White-winged Crossbills and a first report of Common Redpolls. Wish I had time and a limitless supply of gas…

    • http://profile.typepad.com/tfloyd Ted Floyd

      Re: “the most historic week in Pennsylvania birding history.” Think about that. Pennsylvania’s illustrious birding history dates back at least to William Penn. Y’all just witnessed something grander than anything seen by Wilson, Audubon, Bartram, Todd, Parkes, and all the other greats in Pennsylvania birding history. Wow.

      Speaking of Pennsylvania birding history: http://events.aba.org/2013pa/

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