Birding Hurricane Sandy

Well, folks. A mere fourteen months after Irene and here we are again.

Hurricane/Tropical Storm/Hybrid Storm/Perfect Storm SANDY is currently forecast to track off the southeastern US coast as a low-end Cat 1 Hurricane, then bend back to the NW and W directly into the coast somewhere between Maryland and Long Island as she loses tropical characteristics. More specifically, New Jersey is the currently predicted landfall location, and forecasters seem very confident in this right now (premature or not?). This is subject to change as we are still 48 hours from landfall, but the models have been in very good agreement today, so that's what I'm going with.

eBird has posted a nice summary that applies to the entire region, much of which overlaps with what you'll read here. Below is a summary of what to expect in the southern New England region, with a particular focus on Connecticut, which has NO open ocean thanks to being blocked by Long Island and various other islands off the RI/NY coasts.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints I'm going to have to keep this brief.

Ducks & Loons - Perhaps the least exciting event here would be an impressive flight of sea ducks (particularly scoters) and loons along the coast and downed on inland bodies of water. Particularly on Sunday before things get really bad. We are in prime time for Pacific Loon, so scrutinize 'em all! (CT prediction: Modest movement before and after the brunt of the storm.)

Shearwaters & Petrels - These larger tubenoses are often difficult to move, but there is precedent for these birds being carried all the way to the Great Lakes in storms past. There are plenty of Black-capped Petrels and Cory's Shearwaters in the Gulf Stream off the SE US right now, so expect some of them to be seen from land somewhere. (CT prediction: If landfall occurs as far south as central New Jersey, getting any of these birds into Long Island Sound would be a reach. I wouldn't expect them, but I will not be upset if I'm wrong :-)

Storm-Petrels - Wilson's and Band-rumped have cleared out by now, leaving Leach's as the OVERWHELMINGLY most likely stormie to be seen. I'd expect a large wreck of this species along the coast given the size and duration of this event. Keep an eye out inland for sure. (CT prediction: Even if Sandy hits too far south to give CT any truly entrained birds, we may see some weakened wrecked Leach's slip into Long Island Sound from the east. This is one of our more likely seabirds with this storm.)

Tropicbirds - It may seem late in the season to think t-birds but not so. Given where this storm came from, tropicbirds are fair game, though possibly unlikely. You'll want the eye for this one. (CT prediction: Nope!)

Frigatebirds - Unpredictable, and often are scattered/wandering several days after storm passage. (CT prediction: I don't really have one, but the safe one is "No!")

Gannets - Probably a significant movement of gannets before and after the brunt of the storm, as with the sea ducks. (CT prediction: more than average for this time of year, as east wind events often result in a spike in numbers in Long Island Sound.)

Pelicans - Brown Pelican is another tough one to predict, but I'm not expecting many with this storm. Sandy has spent a lot of time quite far offshore, and there won't be any southerly winds ahead of the storm to push them up the coast to the north. Also not anticipating many displaced inland where she makes landfall. (CT prediction: Very unlikely.)

Shorebirds - Most of the shorebird migration is over with, but phalaropes are still on the move, particularly Red Phalarope. (CT prediction: Red Phal is very possible, as much as a grounded migrant as a truly displaced individual.)

Gulls - Expect an uptick in Laughing Gull numbers in northern locales with some inland displacement as well. (CT prediction: Moderate to large influx of laughers into Long Island Sound, perhaps an inland sighting too.)

Terns - The "tropical terns" (Sooty & Bridled) are always anticipated with tropical storms, and this one should be no different. I would expect both species to be involved here, with Sooty both inland and coastal while Bridled probably restricted to coastal location. Sandwich and Royal Terns are also infamous for being moved by these storms, so expect both species to occur out of range to the north, especially Royal. (CT prediction: Sooty yes, Royal yes, Bridled no, Sandwich maybe but probably not. Tough call with the Sooty numbers. Perhaps just one or two people will luck into them, but a more widespread occurrence wouldn't shock me.)

Jaegers/Skuas - Most Long-taileds and many Parasitics have already moved through our region, but Pomarine Jaegers should be off the New England coast in pretty good numbers right now. For instance, the Perfect Storm of Halloween 1991 resulted in record numbers seen from shore on Cape Cod, MA. However we know that Parasitic Jaegers on the east coast are more closely tied to land than Pomarines, and there must still be many of these kicking around. I'm going to go with Pomarine as the most likely jaeger, followed by Parasitic, and Long-tailed a distant third. Skuas are tough birds to move very far, but generally there are Great Skuas not too far into the Gulf of Maine at this time of year, so there's a decent shot at a Great Skua from land in Massachusetts thanks to persistent easterlies. South Polar less likely but not out of the question. (CT prediction: This is a GREAT chance to add Pomarine Jaeger to your CT state list given the time of year. Identification of jaegers, especially in poor conditions, is difficult at best. Experience helps a ton. I'm going to say that a few jaegers are reported in CT during this storm, and even though chances are slim, I'll guess that someone gets lucky with a Pom. No skuas.)

Alcids - A touch on the early side to talk about these, but records show that nearly all the regularly occurring species are technically possible. (CT prediction: No alcids of any kind this early.)

Swallows & Swifts - Probably more of a post-storm thing, try to critically identify any swallow or swift you run across. Caribbean Black Swift and rare southern swallows/martins are fair game.

Now that I've rushed this on very little sleep, it's sure to be entirely wrong. There, I have an excuse :) But seriously, this is not quite like anything we've seen before in our region, so the bird forecast is seemingly more difficult. As a rule, be open-minded, as anything and everything (and nothing!) is possible.

I would love to get into more storm birding strategy but don't have the time right now. You could check out my pre-Irene writeup as well, which may contain a couple things about birding during tropical cyclones.

Good luck, and please be safe.

 - Nick


  1. Nice predictions on the whole. I think the duck/loon movement definitely was spot, pretty good movement in RI today.

    However, I don't agree with your Skua prediction. I'm hoping that one proves brutally wrong for both RI and CT.

  2. Hey Tom, thanks! As you know, RI and CT are two different worlds when it comes to pelagics. A skua is much more likely to be seen from RI than from CT, so I think your odds are much better than mine! As it looks right now, I'll be sticking to CT for the storm, which will probably be the least birdy of the affected coastal states, thanks to the lack of an open ocean. But I just don't need any of the expected species as life birds and would love to find some good birds for the home state. Good luck!


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