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Hurricane Sandy – a dangerous (and intriguing) storm!

Hurricane Sandy, 26 October 2012, 5PM EDT
Hurricane Sandy, 26 October 2012, 5PM EDT

UPDATE 8AM EDT, 29 October 2012: a new update on the track of Sandy has been posted to the Birdcast site!

Watch also for our 2PM eBird story with final predictions and strategy recommendations for birding Sandy.

UPDATE 8AM EDT, 28 October 2012: a new update on the track of Sandy has been posted to the Birdcast site!

UPDATE 11PM EDT, 27 October 2012: the present track appears to take this dangerous storm slightly farther north of previous landfall projections. Please visit BirdCast for a more detailed discussion.

Hurricane Sandy is presently raising eyebrows as it churns its way north toward a predicted landfall in the northern reaches of the DelMarVa Peninsula. As of 2PM on 26 October, the National Hurricane Center models suggest that first landfall will occur on the morning of Tuesday, 30 October. Sandy is forecast to hit as a hurricane, probably a category 1, and a large one at that. In general, this is a going to be a wet, messy, and dangerous storm that affects a wide swath of the Eastern Seaboard! Occurring on a full moon, the storm surge is likely to be huge–very damaging and very dangerous. Given that, we implore exuberant birders to think about safety first, and don’t take risks! There are still uncertainties, and time will tell whether the predicted path is correct, but let’s assume for the moment that it is: what can the hurricane-chasing birder expect to find? Please read on and visit BirdCast for regular updates on the storm!

Please also read our Hurricane Irene redux, and general discussion of birding in hurricanes here: http://ebird.org/content/ebird/news/hurricane-irene-redux

Below we discuss potential strategies and birds to be alert for during the passage of Sandy.

In general, the areas north and east of the storm’s center are most productive for rarities, but rare birds can appear anywhere in the storm’s path that gets strong wind and rain (and rarely well outside the storm’s path at its very fringes). For this storm, we cannot recommend birding coastal areas, since the storm surge will be extremely dangerous. Expect the storm to carry birds far inland though, and given the size and strength of Sandy, we expect the Great Lakes to be a part of the action for storm-blown rarities. It may be reasonably safe to check inland bodes of water, the Chesapeake and or Delaware Bays, Lake Erie and/or Lake Ontario, and inland rivers (e.g., Susquehanna, Delaware, and maybe the Hudson if the storm makes landfall closer to New York), provided the birder uses excessive amounts of caution in doing so, with consideration to the risks of flooding, extreme tides, windblown debris, etc. Pay close attention to the weather reports and do not put yourself at risk in any way!

Birds to watch for (and photograph!):

Note: In the below discussion, we try to draw a distinction between displacement (birds moved or concentrated by the winds) vs. entrainment (birds moving within the storm, presumably in the eye or at upper levels in the storm). Whereas displacement tends to push seabirds to the coast, it is entrainment that tends to carry them far inland. In Hurricane Irene, Laughing Gulls were concentrated through displacement, but White-tailed Tropicbirds and Sooty Terns were entrained and carried hundreds of miles from their presumed points of origin.

From an ornithological perspective, we expect a similar breakdown to Hurricane Irene for storm-driven birds. A great deal of displacement of locally occurring Atlantic coastal species and near shore species will occur, and birds will probably pile up along the immediate coast. A lesser degree of entrainment of farther flung rarities will occur, probably both at coastal and inland locations. However, this system arrives at the Eastern seaboard a full two months later than Irene. There are few hurricanes or Tropical Storms that have reached the East Coast on so late a date, so there is little precedent to draw from to predict what species might be found. Hurricane Hazel hit the Carolinas on 14-16 October 1954 as a Category 4 storm: at least one description, from North Carolina, though anecdotal, describes this: “in Calabash, about a dozen miles west, W.J. McLamb and his wife, Sibyl, walk outside of his mother’s house and look up. Birds fill the sky, birds they’ve never seen before, hundreds of them, riding in Hazel’s eye.

Tubenoses: This is the most interesting group for most hurricane chasers, and the potential for this storm to drive some wacky species toward shore and inland is high. Pterodroma petrels are highly desired, and this storm may produce a smattering of coastal Black-capped Petrels, perhaps even Herald and Fea’s Petrels, which do have some September and October records off the East Coast. Coastal and perhaps even some inland shearwaters seem likely, with Cory’s one of the more likely to be displaced inland based on past records and one of the more common October shearwaters off the mid-Atlantic. Small numbers of Leach’s Storm-Petrels are likely, but Wilson’s and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels are almost all gone and not to be expected (Wilson’s, also, is only rarely displaced inland relative to Leach’s and Band-rumped). Be prepared for a potentially massive inland displacement of Leach’s–some past storms in October and November have wrecked hundreds of Leach’s inland, although this is more likely off northern New England than the mid-Atlantic Bight. White-faced Storm-Petrel, however, could still be at sea off the Mid-Atlantic and should be watched for both coastally and maybe even inland, although there are only a few storm-blown records of White-faceds from coastal or inland locations.

Tropicbirds: Hurricane Irene entrained more than 10 White-tailed Tropicbirds inland, but this year pelagic reports of tropicbirds in the Gulf Stream off North Carolina have been fewer. At least one prior October storm, Hurricane Hazel in October 1954, brought tropicbirds inland as far north as Virginia, Pennsylvania, and western New York (Griscom 1955, McWilliams and Brauning 2000).

Frigatebirds: Magnificent Frigatebirds are common in the Caribbean and travel far and wide, and presumably this species will put in appearances in coastal and inland locations with Sandy. The system passed smack through the range of the species in the Caribbean, where large numbers are present year-round, so birders should watch for reports of this species from the coast inland to the Great Lakes. Most East Coast storms have carried only very small numbers of frigatebirds north–but could the track of this storm and its direct landfall mean that this will be a big frigatebird producer? Or a dud?

Terns: The passage of this storm will go through areas rich in Royal and Sandwich Terns, and it seems likely that these species will be displaced and/or entrained to the mid-Atlantic and maybe inland sites. Although Royal Terns are still common as far north as New Jersey now, the few Sandwich Terns that occur annually north of Virginia are mostly gone by late September, so any sighting during Sandy will be unusual. We expect some, if not many. Note also, that the orange-billed Caribbean breeding form of Sandwich Tern known as Cayenne Tern–or “Sandwich Tern (Cayenne)” in eBird–could get displaced northward. There are very few U.S. records for this form, so any record would be highly significant.

Tropical terns: A typical late summer hurricane like this would surely deposit many tropical terns far afield. Sooty Terns and Bridled Terns tend to differ in that Sooty Terns are often entrained (and thus carried far inland) while Bridled Terns tend to be displaced, and largely or entirely avoid being transported inland in storms. As storms get stronger, they are thus much more likely to entrain Sooties. Given the late date, however, many fewer Onychoprion terns are likely to be present compared to July-September storms. Given how prone Sooties are to displacement, we expect that even on this late date, some might get displaced, but this is one of the big open questions since the at-sea distribution of Sooty Tern in late October is not well known (see eBird map for Nov-Dec); this storm could help answer that question. The plodding track of the storm does also pass through prime noddy territory, but similar to Irene, the storm’s strength may not be sufficient to displace or entrain these birds terribly far.

Laughing Gull: Irene displaced many thousands of Laughing Gulls at its landfall, and presumably, given the track and speed of this storm, something very similar will occur. Given the projected track inland, Laughing Gulls could appear in the Great Lakes and inland bodies of water for some time after the storm if past systems are any indication. However, note that Irene did not move Laughing Gulls inland at all, maybe due to her comparatively weak winds at landfall in New York. Will Sandy be different? Our guess is yes, but the conditions that yield large numbers of inland Laughing Gulls is an interesting facet of East Coast hurricanes that bears watching with Sandy.

Jaegers and skuas: Although almost all Long-tailed Jaegers should have passed through by now, Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers are still moving and are likely to get pushed close to shore by this storm. The possibility of jaegers getting entrained and moved inland is quite high in this storm. Note that some birds seen inland could be “grounded” birds that migrate high overland except when severe weather (like a Hurricane) forces them down on lakes and rivers. Skuas are sometimes displaced by strong storms like this but there are only a few cases where they have been moved inland. Late October is probably too late for South Polar Skuas to be around and too early for Great Skua to be off the mid-Atlantic, so skuas are not really expected in this storm.

Phalaropes: Phalaropes could get displaced or grounded in this storm as late birds migrate south. On this late date, Red Phalarope should predominate, since most Red-neckeds have passed through already.

An eye to the air: as we learned with Irene, keeping an eye skyward is, without a doubt, a good idea. Aerialists like martins and swifts may be entrained in this storm, so birders chasing the recent aftermath of the storm and watching ridgelines, coastlines, and river valleys in the days that follow should keep an eye out for Apus, Cypseloides, and Chaetura swifts, as well as any martin (on this date, Purple Martin is perhaps not the most likely species!) or swallow.

An eye on the ground: We saw the effects in 2011 of an early October hurricane dumping large numbers of Yellow-billed Cuckoos in Bermuda. (Farnsworth and Iliff 2012). The storm that did that, Ophelia, was far out in the ocean, and the fallout was connected to a frontal boundary passing off the continent as that strong storm was zipping North and East. Previous systems have had similar effects, including massive numbers of cuckoos moving in the fall of the cuckoo, 1954 (Griscom 1955, Veit and Petersen 1993). Sandy’s tracking is different, as it is much farther west, and the frontal boundary presently stalling in the Appalachians is much weaker, so presumably the magnitude of that event will not be as big. However, as Sandy makes her way north, it would be worth considering possible fallouts of landbirds as the storm comes ashore. Yellow-billed Cuckoo may be a reasonable candidate for dropout or concentrations after entrainment in the storm, but what else might Sandy hold? The days (and nights) following the system in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic should be quite interesting.

Northeast Seawatching: Although much of the above is focused on Hurricane Sandy’s potential effects in the zone of the Tropical system and its landfall, we would be remiss to ignore the vast other possibilities in this system, which will span 1000+ miles in the Northeastern US. Monday (especially) and Tuesday will see strong northeasterly winds from Long Island north to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Maine, with sustained Northeast winds of up to 50 mph and gusts potentially to 100mph on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The result is sure to be excellent seawatching at east and northeast facing beaches that tend to be good in Northeasterly winds, especially Cape Ann, Manomet Point, Scusset Beach, Sandy Neck Beach, and potentially Corporation Beach in Massachusetts. Birds trapped in Cape Cod Bay may be seen from the tip of Cape Cod or other vantages over the ensuing days as well, and on the first day of westerly winds after the system, First Encounter Beach could be rewarding.

The south coast of Long Island and New England faces south (obviously) and the coast north of Massachusetts faces more southeast, and these will likely be better when the winds shift to be more southeasterly late on Monday and on Tuesday. The south coast of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and even some of Connecticut in Long Island Sound could be excellent, although access is sure to be difficult with the extensive coastal flooding. North of Massachusetts, the winds won’t be as strong when they come around to the Southeast (25 mph or so on Tuesday morning), but weaker southeasterlies may be better than strong northeasterlies, given the southeastward-facing coastlines. The best seawatching in New Hampshire and southern Maine may be Tuesday morning, and the earlier in the morning you are in place, the better.

Wherever you are (north of New York City), tropical vagrants probably should not be expected but you should watch watch for alcids, loons, sea ducks, and especially seabirds like Northern Fulmar, Cory’s, Great, Sooty, and Manx shearwaters, Leach’s Storm-Petrel, Northern Gannets in large numbers, and maybe Red Phalaropes. It is possible that Leach’s Storm-Petrels and Dovekies or other alcids could get blown very close to shore, and even into coastal ponds or harbors, depending on wind strength in the area (50 mph+ may be needed).

Waterfowl fallout: Any rainy storm in the Northeast during waterfowl migration has the potential to ground ducks (including Brant, scoter and Long-tailed Ducks), loons, grebes, gulls, and even occasional rarities (maybe a Black-legged Kittiwake, jaeger, or late phalarope) on inland lakes. Repeated checks of large lakes over the course of this storm could well be rewarding, and watching riverine corridors like the Connecticut, Hudson, Delaware, and Susquehanna Rivers could be very good as grounded seabirds, sea ducks, and other waterbirds try to make their way towards the ocean under adverse conditions. The farther west and south you are (Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers in particular), the more likely entrained tropical species or displaced coastal species are to occur.

Most of all, this storm is completely unprecedented and the bird load in the storm is very hard to predict. It will be fascinating to see what appears.

Birders should exercise tremendous care, as usual, when birding in and around a hurricane. SAFETY IS ALWAYS THE FIRST PRIORITY. This may be particularly true for this system in coastal areas because of the potential for heavy rains and large storm surges. It will be best to consider locations at higher ground as the storm actually passes. Be aware that inland sites are not necessarily secure and safe from flooding, and avoid any and all sites that might flood during heavy rains.

Again, please watch the BirdCast site for updates on this developing storm. And don’t forget to enter all the birds you see into eBird, so we can have a complete record from the storm.

References

Farnsworth, A. and Iliff, M. J. The Changing Seasons: Driven. North American Birds 66: 16-28.

Griscom, L. 1955. The Yellow-billed Cuckoo flight of 1954. The Bulletin of the Massachusetts Audubon Society 39:151-156.

McWilliams, Gerald M.; Brauning, Daniel W. 2000. The Birds of Pennsylvania. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Veit, R.R. and Petersen, W.R. 1993. Birds of Massachusetts. Massachusetts Audubon Society, Lincoln, MA.