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Happening NOW: Storm-Blown Birds from Hurricane Dorian

Every September, people in the Caribbean and the eastern (and sometimes even southwestern) United States direct their focus towards the weather; early fall is hurricane season, and the storms that come with it are becoming more and more intense. With recent hurricanes like Irma, Maria, and Harvey pounding southeastern states and often totally devastating islands in the Carribean, it’s hard to view these storms as anything other than killing machines powered by climate change.

Yet, for many birders, the view is more complicated. As morbid as it sounds, landlocked southeastern birders can get antsy to see the seabirds that their Floridian neighbors see regularly, and a tropical storm is often a remedy for that. While I’m sure the excitement from finding a Brown Noddy or a Sooty Tern on a Piedmont lake is always tainted with some level of guilt, looking for storm waifs can help us better understand seabird biology and the processes behind hurricane entrapment.

When Hurricane Dorian first hit the news, the Caribbean was the immediate concern for many storm-watchers. Unfortunately, the storm did live up to the dire predictions; Dorian ravaged the Bahamas, permanently affecting its infrastructure and people, and potentially eliminating the endemic Brown-headed Nuthatch subspecies. Meanwhile, as people mourned for the Bahamas, Dorian also let many hopeful inland birders down. Even decidedly less interesting than some past storms have been think back to hurricanes that produced inland records of Black-capped Petrels or Great Shearwaters. By hugging the coastline, Dorian was able to continue its path of destruction and yet only produce a mediocre showing of wayward, storm-swept waifs. Not until after September 7th, the day Dorian passed over Atlantic Canada, did the birding community begin to become truly interested in the hurricane for its birds.

While Nova Scotia gets a fair share of southern migrants and seabirds normally, the number of rare seabirds that seemed to drop out of nowhere following Dorian’s passage was extraordinary; Forster’s, Black, Caspian, Royal, Sandwich, and Gull-billed terns suddenly appeared on the coasts of the peninsula and flocks of Laughing Gulls filled small ponds miles inland. Swallows thought long gone, such as Bank Swallows and Purple Martins, suddenly reappeared. Brown Pelicans, stilts and avocets, multiple Bridled Terns, Marbled Godwits, a flock of two hundred Black Skimmers Dorian was finally paying off. And that’s not even counting what was found in Newfoundland.

Undoubtedly, the icing on the cake was the discovery of not one, but two dead White-faced Storm-Petrels at the same location on Cape Breton Island by Angela MacDonald; even more astounding, these birds were found on a lake fifty kilometers inland! This record represents not only the first record within sight of land in Canada, but also the third mainland North American record. Surely Dorian’s aftermath couldn’t get any more interesting.

The next few weeks progressively proved that assertion wrong. Soon after the commotion reached a head in the Maritime provinces, birders to the south started finding similar birds. Black Skimmers started flooding down the Maine coastline, and as many as five Gull-billed Terns made appearances in Massachusetts. It wasn’t as spectacular as what storm birders hoped Dorian would blow to Race Point on Cape Cod, or the turnout of southern seabirds in Nova Scotia, but it was notable for New Englanders nonetheless. With a Wilson’s Plover on Plum Island in Massachusetts and a pair of Gull-billed Terns all the way down the St. Lawrence River in Kamouraska, Quebec, it was clear that the event wasn’t limited to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland anymore.

The explanation should seem pretty obvious; once the slingshotted birds were grounded, they started making their way south again. While this is a pretty logical response to being blown north, it’s fascinating because hurricane waifs are not often documented returning to their normal ranges. Hurricanes like Earl and Donna have resulted in similar fallouts in the Maritimes, but because of the increased use of eBird in recent times the coverage of Dorian has been much more extensive than it was during past storms. Even if Dorian’s effects on displaced birds are relatively easy to understand, it is just as important to collect data from this “uninteresting” storm as to collect data from storms that blow seabirds into Appalachia. From the pool of bird reports in the wake of Dorian, we have a much more complete understanding of how birds react to hurricanes, specifically hurricanes that hug coastlines and deposit seabirds coastally—even if those aren’t always the most intriguing storms from the birding community’s perspective. While interest in hurricane birding should not subtract from how severely these storms can affect ecosystems and communities, it should add to our rapidly growing knowledge about bird biology and behavior.

So if you’re in the northeast, stay on the lookout! Dorian’s stormblown birds are taking their sweet time heading south. As of the writing of this article, Black Skimmers and Gull-billed Terns are still hanging out along the coasts of New England, so get to your local coastline and try your luck at some post-hurricane birding!

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Tim Swain

Tim Swain

Tim Swain began birding when he was seven and hasn’t dropped his binoculars since. Even though he lives in eastern Massachusetts, he has a particular interest in the American west for its amazing diversity of habitats and birds. He is looking forward to a future of conducting field research on birds, hopefully focusing on how habitat changes affect their populations and movement. In the meantime, he plans on continuing his listing and contributing to eBird.
Tim Swain

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