Thursday, August 25, 2011

Birding Hurricane Irene

[Note: This is geared toward birding in CT, though some of it may apply to neighboring states]

Before I go into detail about birding this storm, a little perspective about these things. Hurricanes are serious storms, so I am told. In my adult life I’ve never sat through anything more than a tropical depression. For us here in southern New England, Hurricanes Bob (1991) and Gloria (1985) are probably distant memories for most people. I vaguely recall sitting on our enclosed porch in Bridgeport as a child, waiting out the wind and rain of Bob. We’ve seen via the media that poor preparation coupled with bad luck can cause disaster, so let’s all be as safe and smart as possible.

Switching gears to the birds, many displaced seabirds do presumably perish, especially those found on lakes hundreds of miles inland. Also, many migrant passerines and shorebirds are negatively affected by these systems. It is very unfortunate, but it is nature at work.

But as birders, we can’t help but let our attention shift partially to the silver-lining of tropical cyclones. Here are some quotes from folks who have summed up the situation quite well in recent years:

“…but then I reminded myself that no one has control over the weather, and that birders are simply taking meteorological lemons and making lemonade.” – Scott Weidensaul

“…there is no more radical or rapid change in bird status and distribution than during and after a tropical cyclone that makes landfall. We regularly scramble to locate birds after most other meteorological phenomena, whether warm front, cold front, fogbank, or snowstorm, so surely we would not ignore tropical weather systems, despite their awful costs. We are students of the here and now, after all.” – Edward S. Brinkley

Now, onto that silver lining.

If Hurricane Irene does indeed make landfall at or near Connecticut, this would be the first such local event of the internet, cell phone, and digital camera eras. Bob and Gloria passed through (or near) before we were all connected via smartphones, before the days of posting to listservs from the field, or even making phone calls from the field. Rarities could not be documented with photographs with ease like they are today. And I believe that back then, only 20-30 years ago, birders were not fully aware of the best storm-birding strategies. Those who have been birding locally for decades will probably attest to this.

After barreling through the heart of the Bahamas, Hurricane Irene will emerge into Gulf Stream waters. From here she is forecast to move NNE, possibly making landfill in eastern North Carolina before moving up the coast. The storm could hit west of us, east of us, or pass right overhead. With so much uncertainty left in the track, it is impossible to try to predict the best areas to go birding during (if safe enough) and after the storm.

The storm’s sheer size and track (originating in the Cape Verde region, organizing just east of the Caribbean, skirting the northeast Caribbean islands, then through the Bahamas and the Gulf Stream) certainly gives us potential for a variety of seabirds, shorebirds, and terns we would otherwise have little or no chance of seeing in Long Island Sound or inland. The track hasn’t gone over much deep ocean, with most of the recent track being over waters on the Continental Shelf, which may hurt us bird-wise. However this is a large storm, and its “right” side will have spent some time off the edge of the shelf.

It would appear, from reading accounts of recent storm passages, that there are no guarantees with these things. But, generally speaking, the “birdiest” quadrant is usually the ‘right-front’ quadrant, which not surprisingly is also usually the strongest part of the storm. So, if the storm was heading due north, the northeastern quadrant would be the ‘right-front’ quadrant. In general, the birdiest scenario would occur if the storm passes directly over us or just to our west (which would put us on the east side of the storm and give us some of that right-front quadrant). The sample size isn’t large enough to tell us exactly how significant this is, but one could argue that for greatest birdlife we would rather it hit 150 miles to our west than just 50 miles to our east, accepting more time over land and weakening in order for us to be on the east side of it. FYI those mileages are arbitrary numbers, just thrown in there to make a point.

Birders will no doubt be scattered throughout the state, probably both Sunday during the storm and early Monday after its passage. The key for us will be to KEEP IN TOUCH. Bring your cell phones (for safety if for nothing else). If you find a rarity or something you think might be rare, call someone on your typical rare bird phone tree to get word out. If you have a smartphone, post to CTBirds along with making phone calls. Storm-blown waifs sometimes do linger for hours on inland bodies of water. Coastal flybys are less likely to linger, but it is still worth getting word out with a direction of the bird’s flight. Remember the American White Pelicans from a couple autumns ago? We tracked those birds over dozens of miles in one day’s flight. A jaeger moving east from Stamford could very well pass Stratford Point later on, so a heads-up is always a good idea.

Also, if you can, take a photo. Distant seabirds can be very difficult to identify, especially if you’re not an experienced seabirder or if viewing conditions are poor. Snapping off a few photos for later analysis could be the difference between certain identification and frustration. Also, the ARCC would love as much documentation as possible for the official record. With a concentrated effort, we have the opportunity to add to the growing data regarding tropical cyclones and their redistribution of entrained birds. We have much to learn.

We will be faced with the decision of whether to hit the coast or check larger inland bodies of water. Which bodies? Rivers or lakes? If the coast, east or west? Point of land or river mouth? It really is a crapshoot in the end, though the exact storm track will help us. As the track becomes more certain, we’ll know more about important things such as duration, intensity, and direction of the winds including approximate times the winds will shift direction.

What birds can we expect? Again, there are no guarantees, but if landfall occurs in CT, some species are more likely than others.

The tropical terns first come to mind, Sooty and Bridled. Most storms record greater numbers of Sooty Tern than Bridled, though this isn’t always the case. Other terns, such as Royal, Sandwich, and Gull-billed are possible. Good numbers of Black Tern are likely, and Black Skimmer numbers may increase as well. Really any tern that occurs in our region is possible, whether truly moved by the storm or just knocked down by the inclement weather locally, including Roseate and Caspian too.

Tubenoses, always rare in CT waters except for maybe Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, may be represented by any of the following: Black-capped Petrel or rarer Pterodromas are possible, any of five shearwater species, and we’ll say 4 species of storm-petrel (I’ll include White-faced because CT’s 1976 record of this species came thanks to Hurricane Belle. It occurred at the mouth of the Housatonic River, exactly where the center of circulation made landfall).

If you’re exceedingly lucky, a tropicbird or frigatebird isn’t out of the question. And while boobies are usually not associated with these storms, the recent presence of three Brown Boobies between New Jersey and Maine raises this possibility.

More likely are jaegers…any of the three species are possible with Parasitic being the most likely by a wide margin. Normally I would say Pomarine is next in line, but given that we’re in the heart of Long-tailed migration and early for most migrant Poms, Long-tailed may be our second most likely jaeger. Either skua, while highly unlikely, is still possible.

As for gulls, we’re pretty much guaranteed (there, I said it!) an uptick in Laughing Gull numbers. More exciting would be a Sabine’s Gull, which, since they migrate overland in very small numbers, might be just as likely to be knocked down as genuinely displaced (This also goes for jaegers, phalaropes, and some terns.). A few Lesser Black-backed Gulls may be seen as well.

Then there’s the shorebirds. Good ol’ reliable shorebirds. If this storm largely misses us and only provides a breezy rain, we’ll still have more shorebirds downed by the weather. More of the common species, plus increased chances of Hudsonian Godwits, American Golden-Plovers, and Red & Red-necked Phalaropes (Red-necked more likely than Red).

And we may as well think outside the box. How about a rare swift, swallow, or martin from the Caribbean? Doug Gochfeld mentioned White-cheeked Pintail to me the other day…and why not? Keep an open mind, and try to document anything strange.


Any of these are possible, but even a direct hit would likely deliver only some of them.

As of right now, the timeline seems to indicate worsening conditions throughout Sunday with the worst weather during Sunday PM. There appears a decent chance that the nasty weather continues after dark on Sunday. If this is the case, Monday morning AFTER the storm may well yield the best birding. Birds dropped in CT during the storm and overnight will likely try to reorient toward the ocean, meaning they could be seen leaving LI Sound or exiting the major rivers. They could also awake to find only inland lakes or flooded parking lots below them. Which inland bodies of water? Again, if there’s landfall in CT, follow the track of the eye. If not, try to head wherever that right-front quadrant passed through. Alternatively, if the eye passes east of CT, I’d think that getting as far east as possible would be the way to go.

Well, now that I’ve gone through all that, I guess it pretty much means the storm will be a miss. You’re welcome :)

Be safe,

Nick

References

Armistead, G. L & Sullivan B. L. 2004. Birding Hurricane Isabel. Birding 36: 6, pages 616-624

Brinkley, E. S. 2011. The Changing Seasons: Bedfellows. North American Birds 65: 1, pages 17-20.

Zeranski, J. D. & Baptist T. R. 1990. Connecticut Birds, page 41.

3 comments:

  1. Nick - thanks for all of this information - great to have it condensed, no, crystallized, here. Well done.
    Sue Hochgraf, Yale West Campus.

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  2. I'm on the West Coast, but I used to live in Florida and have some experience with hurricanes. I really appreciate the perspective of a birder on this storm. Thanks for a really thought provoking post.

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  3. My pleasure guys, glad you found it useful.

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