Hurricane Irene was a very large Category 1 storm at landfall on 27 August. She transected the Carolinas and then took a very unusual route right up the East Coast, passing just offshore of Chesapeake Bay and then along coastal New Jersey. The eye of the now dissipating Tropical Storm then passed over New York on the morning of 28 August, moving up the Hudson River Valley and crossing through central Massachusetts at about 3:30 pm. With the storm’s avian effects now essentially over, we are trying to encourage observers to report their sightings to eBird. With highly mobilized observers and numerous eBird checklists from the storm-affected area, this is already one of the best documented storms on record. But many great sightings still have not been added to the system. Read on for a preliminary summary the storm’s avian results.
Hurricane Irene was a fantastic storm for birding for those that could get out safely to a viewpoint where they could watch for seabirds. As is often typical, the birds in these storms were few, but the ones seen were of very high quality.
Please note that this storm has also been very destructive, with unprecedented flooding in upstate New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and unfortunately, some loss of life. Our hearts go out to those negatively impacted by the storm.
Many of the below birds have yet to be entered into eBird, and if your friends saw some of these birds please ask them to get them into eBird so that the maps start to fill out with the full picture of these birds’ occurrence!
And since the storm, an additional several birds have been found dead or dying:
This makes for an unprecedented total of 12+ White-taield Tropicbirds i nthe Northeast in conjunction with this storm!
In addition, at least two GREAT landbirds were seen. One or both may have a storm connection, and aerial insectivores are the landbirds most likely to be transported by hurricanes:
Here are some great eBird checklists from the storm:
There is much more to be learned about the storm and its birds as people continue to organize their checklists and enter them in eBird. If you haven’t put yours in yet, please do!
To reiterate, remember that hurricanes are devastating and dangerous events. Driving in rain is bad enough, but driving in rain and hurricane force winds can be deadly. Avoid crossing bridges in high winds. Downed trees and powerlines, blowing debris, and other drivers only add to the peril.
Storm surge flooding is perhaps the most dangerous aspects of such storms. Since a surge of 15 ft or more can occur, many otherwise “safe” areas might be deadly in a hurricane. Do not take any chances with driving through flooded areas and do not do anything that might trap you in a low-lying area that is being flooded.
If you are considering looking for birds before or after the storm, make sure you are being safe during the storm’s passage. Don’t even consider intentionally putting yourself in the center of the strongest part of the storm.
Whether birding in the advancing storm or after the passage of the storm, you will need shelter from both wind and rain. If you plan any birding in the storm, think hard about what sites (overhangs on buildings, hotels with rooms facing the lake, river, or ocean, etc.) will provide shelter for you and your optics and not be facing directly into the expected wind direction. Birding from your car can sometimes be effective and safe, since an open car window facing away from the wind can be quite effective. Think in advance about how to use your telescope, either on a tripod or a window mount, from inside your car. Bring paper towels to dry off wet optics!
Understanding hurricanes is important. Hurricanes are cyclonic, so the winds are rotating counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere. This means that northeast quadrant of an advancing storm will have winds from the southeast, and that those winds will shift to become southwesterly as the storm center passes to the west. This is important to understand since seabirds that do not like to fly over land may be ‘pinned’ against shorelines in the high winds of a hurricane. As the storm passes, you may want to shift your strategy, and be sure to consider shifting winds as you do so. Also remember that the northeastern quadrant of the storm has the strongest and most dangerous winds as well as the most rain. After the storm passes, conditions can quickly clear up and visibility can be excellent.
One important general pattern is that the eastern sides of hurricanes tend to have higher loads of displaced birds than the western side. This could be because the tighter isobars here keep birds more effectively entrained within the storm. But note that in Hurricane Bob most rarities in New England were along the path of the eye.
Numerous reports also refer to birds being ‘trapped’ within the eye of storms, and many observers have seen large numbers of rarities in the calm eye of storms, although we would NEVER recommend intentionally putting yourself in the path of a hurricane with a well-defined eye (these tend to be stronger storms).
One consideration is how birds will behave in relation to obstructions. Most displaced birds will want to stay over water if possible, but tubenoses may be more closely tied to water than terns, for example. At a given reservoirm a shearwater, storm-petrel, or even Pterodroma petrel is likely to stay for the day, maybe departing overnight. But terns, gulls, and shorebirds may depart if the weather allows; your exciting Sooty Tern may pick up and fly over the treeline and away. Note also that certain seabirds, especially boobies and gannets, shearwaters, and Pterodroma petrels, seem to avoid crossing bridges. There are several indications that birds like this may feel ‘trapped’ on a given side of a bridge. This could be a factor as you plan where to check for birds.
Hurricane strength obviously has a bearing on how many birds are displaced, and roughly speaking, stronger storms carry more birds than weaker ones. However, strong hurricanes that dissipate to Tropical Storms can still carry birds long distances, ESPECIALLY if that dissipation occurs after the storm makes landfall. Storms that weaken to Tropical Storms while still at sea typically carry surprisingly few displaced seabirds.
An advancing hurricane will have a large front of winds blowing from the southeast in its northeast quadrant. If birding before the storm, pick a site where southeasterly winds will pin birds against the shoreline, or better yet, concentrate them in a bay or river mouth. Watch for storm birds flying from south to north with the winds at their backs. Often the local birds may be flying any which way, but the interesting storm birds will be heading up from the south fleeing the path of the encroaching storm. Sometimes rarities like Sooty Terns can fall out at inland lakes with the storm center still many hundreds of miles to the south. For example, Sooty Terns turned up at an inland lake in Maryland at 2pm on Friday, 6 September 1996, while the storm center of Hurricane Fran was still south of Cape Hatteras. It pays to get out and try, but do so safely and beware the storm surge and encroaching storm.
Birds can be anywhere. Check any spot with water, especially rivers, large lakes, or inland bays. even small lakes, ponds, or wet fields can generate exciting birds, especially shorebirds. If you can’t get to water, just look up. Some lucky birders have picked up Sooty Terns and other surprises right over city rooftops with no water in sight! Try to get a look at any grounded bird that a friend or relative reports to you and make contact with rehab centers that might receive and rehabilitate rare birds.
It can often be difficult to connect with displaced seabirds after the passage of the storm. Check lakes for rare seabirds that may feel “trapped” on the lake until nightfall. Check rivers and coastal bays for birds reorienting back to saltwater, especially the eastern sides if westerly winds are ‘pinning’ birds to a given shoreline. Theoretically, there could be several days worth of commuting rare birds along major rivers like the Hudson, Delaware, and Connecticut Rivers.
Be alert for any sick, dead, or dying birds, since these could represent rarities. Check known shorebird spots, tern concentration spots, gull roosts, etc to see if any rarities have stopped for a rest. Bays behind barrier islands can often trap seabirds just after a storm, and often the seabirds will also feel trapped by bridges. If there is a route back to the ocean, they may eventually find it, but many tubenoses (e.g., shearwaters and storm-petrels) might feel ‘stuck’ in a barrier island bay even if the ocean is just 200m away if they simply flew over the narrow strip of land.
Usually most rarities occur within a few hours or at most a day of the storm’s passage. Only on very rare occasion do species like Sooty Terns or tubenoses occur longer than 24 hours after a storms passage, and many seem to leave overnight. Very large lakes, especially the Great Lakes, can sometimes hold rarities for up to a week though, so be sure to get out birding as much as you can after a storm and see what is about. Frigatebirds in particular are famous for occurring well before and well after storm passage.
Most of these species can be found at any season, although southern seabirds in general peak off the East Coast in late summer and early fall (when juveniles have dispersed and when waters are warmer). The few species with more significant seasonality are mentioned. In addition to the birds listed below. It certainly pays to check every bird carefully in storms. Some passerines, or highly aerial birds like swifts, could be displaced by storms as well. Check anything you see with care!
The below birds are ones with a history of showing up in odd places in clear association with Hurricanes and Tropical Storms.
The following species are regularly transported up from the south by hurricanes:
Black-capped Petrel — One of the most often displaced tubenoses inland, Black-capped Petrels have turned up on inland lakes and reservoirs many times. Interestingly, they are probably more likely inland than species like Great or Cory’s Shearwater, which vastly outnumber Black-capped in nearshore waters.
Herald Petrel — Has turned up inland about 4 times and has turned up coastal at least a couple times at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. To be watched for, especially since NOAA cruises established this year that the species ranges north to waters off Massachusetts and seems to be more regular and widespread than previously recognized.
Fea’s Petrel — Has turned up inland at least once in a storm, in Virginia in the epic Hurricane Fran of September 1996. Bermuda Petrel has yet to be found in a storm, but is to be watched for.
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel — Along with Leach’s Storm-Petrel, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel has turned up inland numerous times in conjunction with hurricanes. the longer wings and more aerial behavior of the Oceandroma storm-petrels may be part of the reason they outnumber Wilson’s inland, despite the fact that Wilson’s are much more common nearshore.
Brown Booby — Several records well up the East Coast in relation to storms. Masked Booby has almost never occurred well to the north in storms, but should be watched for. No confirmed inland records of either booby in relation to storms.
Tropicbirds — Both White-tailed and Red-billed Tropicbirds have been found in conjunction with hurricanes and Tropical Storms, although most often they have been found grounded inland and turned in to rehabilitators or found dead. Notable recent records of live, flying birds have come from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (White-tailed) and Cape Cod (twice; White-tailed). Summer 2011 has been one of the best tropicbird years ever, so Hurricane Irene could carry a significant tropicbird load [It did! See above summary of Irene]
Magnificent Frigatebird — Probably significantly more likely in June-August than later in the fall, although records of storm-displaced birds extend to October and even November. Frigatebirds are famous for occurring well before a storm’s arrival and well afterwards, presumably because they re so good in the air that they can easily soar on winds at the periphery to give the storm a wide berth. Watch for frigatebirds up to a day before the storm’s arrival and for up to a week after it has passed.Be alert for other species of frigatebird as well (i.e., always identify frigatebirds with great care), since Great Frigatebird has occurred in Oklahoma after a November hurricane and Lesser Frigatebird has occurred in Michigan after a September one!
Wilson’s Plover — A few records of birds apparently displaced by storms, almost all of which are coastal
Sooty Tern — Probably the quintessential hurricane bird, Sooty Terns are highly aerial at sea and very likely to be displaced. Most storms that affect the East Coast between August and October carry a certain number of Sooty Terns. Look (and listen!) for them at any body of water during of after the storm’s passage, or along coastlines where northeasterly winds may pin them to the coast. Watching a river or bay where seabirds may return to the sea may be the best strategy, and be alert for exhausted birds at any location or birds that join terns roosts. Many will be dark juveniles, which can be easily mistaken for noddies.
Bridled Tern — Generally speaking it is rarer than Sooty Tern in conjunction with storms, perhaps because it is overall less aerial than Sooty Tern and less apt to fly at great heights (where long-range displacement may occur). Much more likely to occur coastally than inland–inland records are especially rare and should be very carefully documented with respect to Sooty Tern. Previous storms have displaced large numbers to coastal locations (e.g., 130 at Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in Hurricane Isabel 2003) and scattered birds coastally as far north as Maine and Atlantic Canada.
Brown Noddy — Just a couple records, all coastal, and many others of suspected noddies that either did not consider or did not eliminate juvenile Sooty Tern. While Brown Noddy is a species to be watched for, it is likely to be very very rare and incautious observers must take great care to eliminate juvenile Sooty Tern which is also all-dark.
Royal and Sandwich Terns — Regularly pushed up from the south in storms. Much rarer inland, but to be watched for, especially in stronger storms.
Gull-billed Tern — As this species is less pelagic, it is less commonly displaced by storms. Nonetheless, it is to be watched for, especially before early September and is much more likely on the coast than inland.
Black Skimmer — Rare north of Cape Cod, hurricanes can often transport large numbers of skimmers north. Unlike Sooty Terns and tubenoses, skimmers and certain other terns like Royal and Sandwich can often linger for many days or even weeks after hurricanes.
Wish list birds — Bermuda Petrel, Black-bellied Storm-Petrel, Bulwer’s Petrel (has occurred once in a storm, in at Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel), and albatrosses (at least one Yellow-nosed occurred on the Hudson River in a storm) are all to be watched for as well!
These birds tend to be expected at coastal sites, but can be very exciting when found inland. Many of these birds occur inland ONLY during hurricanes or similar storms. Species that have occurred inland historically that should be watched for include:
Cory’s and Audubon’s Shearwaters — The two more regular shearwaters inland, perhaps because they are more regular in warmer waters where these storms originate
Great, Manx and Sooty Shearwater — Likely to be pushed near to shore, but extremely rare inland; perhaps because they predominate in cooler waters where the storms tend to pass quickly and thus are less easily entrained?
Northern Fulmar — As a northern species, it is almost never recorded in hurricanes, although storms that cross the Gulf of Maine (north of Cape Cod) could displace a few fulmars.
Leach’s Storm-Petrel — The most likely storm-petrel inland, although storms coming up from the south may very likely have Band-rumped Storm-Petrels too. As the season gets later, Leach’s becomes the more likely storm-petrel, since Wilson’s becomes quite rare by October. Some of the larger fallouts of Leach’s have been in October and November.
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel — Shockingly rare inland, with literally only a handful of confirmed records (including Cayuga Lake, near Cornell University, Lake Erie, and inland lakes in North Carolina). Records should be carefully documented, since either Leach’s or Band-rumped is much more likely, and both can be very similar, especially in the high winds and poor viewing conditions of hurricanes. Please use storm-petrel sp. if you are unsure of the species.
White-faced Storm-Petrel — One of the holy grail birds of a Hurricane, it has occurred inland on Jordan Lake, NC, and the James RIver, VA (both Hurricane fran 1996), as well as in Connecticut.
American Oystercatcher — Just a few records
‘Eastern’ Willet (T. s. semipalmata) — Almost unheard of inland but worth watching for; not likely after mid-September; be sure to eliminate much more likely ‘Western’ Willets (T. s. inornata)!
Piping Plover — Just a few records
Red-necked and Red Phalaropes — Some may represent overland migrant birds ‘grounded’ by the storm.
Shorebirds — Almost any species of shorebird can turn up inland in storms, including Marbled Godwits, Whimbrels, and other species that aren;t often seen inland.
Parasitic, Pomarine, and Long-tailed Jaegers — Some may represent overland migrant birds ‘grounded’ by the storm. As always, take great care with jaeger identification.
South Polar Skua — A couple inland records in North Carolina and Tennessee/Kentucky (Hurricane Katrina). To be watched for, but very rare. Be sure to eliminate immature jaegers with great care. Great Skua, a more northerly species in summer months, tends not to occur in hurricanes although it could be pushed near shore from Cape Cod north.
Least Tern — Almost never occurs inland except in hurricanes, but numbers can be swept inland in storms that occur before mid-September.
Arctic Tern — Most Arctic Terns have already migrated south by late August, and most migrate well east of the tracks of hurricanes, so they tend not to occur often in storms. Still, it is to be watched for, especially in August and September.
Roseate Tern — This species stages in large numbers south of Cape Cod, and migrates offshore during August and September. Watch for it inland or in any tern concentration during storms in August and September. Extremely rare inland, with just a couple records.
Alcids — Given their rarity in southern waters during the summer, alcids do not generally occur inland or coastal in hurricanes, although easterly winds can push them to shore from Cape Cod north. Hurricane force winds in winter can cause large wrecks of alcids inland though, including Dovekie and Thick-billed Murre in particular.
One of the better recent storms for rare-bird fallout in New England was Hurricane Bob. You can see its track here: http://www.stormpulse.com/hurricane-bob-1991. It was a fast moving storm (30 mph when off the mid-Atlantic and New England) and made landfall in Rhode Island at 2pm on 19 August 1991. It cross Massachusetts east of Boston and west of Cape Cod, and was in Cumberland County, Maine, by 8pm on 19 August. Birders were mobilized as the storm passed and had the following results:
North American Birds summarizes the storm in its articles available here. A few highlights:
Hurricane Fran made landfall near the North/South Carolina border on the evening of 5 September 1996 with 10 mph winds. It dissipated from there as it headed inland, but it became known as one of the best hurricanes on record for rare birds. Ned Brinkley, Todd Hass, and Brian Patterson summarized the storm (as well as Hurricane Bertha) and what was learned of birds.
When seawatching, or providing data for any long stationary count, it can often be helpful to break those counts into hourly units. since there is still much to be learned about how and where birds occur in such storms, having hourly total information would be quite helpful. Including notes on behavior and age (when known) of birds seen, especially if they seem to be species displaced by the storm. Do not ignore commoner species like gulls and terns since some of those species may have been displaced by the storm too. And, as always, please be conservative with your identifications (i.e., use tern sp., storm-petrel sp., shearwater sp., or tropicbird sp. (!) if needed) and document rarities to the best of your ability.
While displaced seabirds and other rarities are of course exciting, it is worth remembering that these storms are major disruptions to fall migration and can cause devastating mortality to birds. Even observations of typical landbirds before and after a hurricane have value, so please do get out birding even if you aren’t in a spot likely to get rare storm birds.
As a nice note of hope, note that this satellite-tagged Whimbrel survived a migration right through the storm!
Be safe, and good luck!
Check out these hurricane submissions from eBirders!
This is one of the seminal articles on hurricanes, discussing the active and exciting season of 1996.
BRINKLEY, E. S., T. HASS, AND J. LOCKYER. 1997. The storms of 96, Part 1: the storms and their associated birds. Audubon Society Field Notes 51: 819–829.
Hurricane Bob — seasonal report from American Birds available here.