Monday, September 12, 2005

Storm Birds

Powerful storms, especially hurricanes, wreak havoc on anything in their path. But they can also be a boon to birders. Birds in the path of a storm are swept along by its winds and left behind in its wake. This is especially true of seabirds, which frequently are deposited inland, far from their normal range. Washington, D.C., for example, has records of the following coastal and pelagic birds on its checklist: Leach's and Band-rumped Storm-petrels; Parasitic Jaeger; Bridled, Sooty, and Black Terns; Black Skimmer; and a Frigatebird-species. Since Washington lies about 100 miles inland, it seems safe to assume that most of these records were the result of storms. Unfortunately the checklist does not provide details on these sightings to confirm my assumption.

During migration, storms can have another effect. Heavy winds and rain force birds to land and find cover. Over open water, this can devastate a migrating flock because there is essentially no place to land. Inland, however, this can cause large fallouts as migrants hit the path of the storm and land in the nearest patch of trees.

At the same time as Hurricane Katrina was devastating refuges along the coast (see here, here, and here), it brought birds to birders inland. Most significant sightings occurred in Tennessee and Kentucky. One birder has put up a gallery of storm birds seen in Tennessee. In Ohio, no ocean-going birds materialized, but the storm caused a fallout of shorebirds.

The most recent hurricane to bring unusual birds into Washington, D.C., was Hurricane Isabel in September 2003. (See here for information on Isabel.) At the time I knew to look around the waterfront area, but I was not experienced enough to know what I was looking for. All I turned up was a Palm Warbler, which was a life bird for me at the time, but hardly out of place. More experienced observers in Washington found a Black Skimmer, some Wilson's Storm-petrels, and a Band-rumped Storm-petrel. Other locations in the area, especially in Virginia, had a variety of terns, jaegers, and other sea-going birds.

Around the middle of this week, Ophelia is expected to bring rain and wind close to the Washington area. Will it also bring birds? I am not expecting much. The storm's projected path takes it over the Outer Banks and then out to sea, so Washington should only see the outer bands of the storm, if any. That it is weak and meandering also makes it less likely to bring seabirds inland. By contrast, Isabel in 2003 came up through central Virginia and was still at hurricane-strength when it reached our area.

For more information about storm birds, see: