Category Archives: Hurricanes and Birds

Mother Nature’s whims can produce major impacts on birds

Sooty_tern_flying

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Duncan Wright The sooty tern, pictured, nests mainly in Hawaii, but some also nest on the islands of the Dry Tortugas, west of the Florida Keys. In 2004, Hurricane Frances blew one of these tropical birds to Holston Lake in Bristol. Severe storms also present devastating obstacles for other birds.

With Hurricane Florence dominating the headlines in recent weeks, it’s only natural to speculate on whether such storms can impact birds in a negative way.

According to a 2011 blog post made on the National Wildlife Federation website, hurricanes can be bad news for some birds. Naturally enough, sea birds and waterfowl are most exposed to the forces of a hurricane. Some birds will move inland to avoid the incoming storm. The birds that inhabit our yards and gardens will ride out the storm using special adaptations. Songbirds will automatically tighten their toes around their perches, riding out the winds of a hurricane by holding onto a branch with a death grip. It’s the same adaptation that lets them sleep on a branch without letting go and falling off during the night.

The blog points out that the news often covers the appearance of rare species after a major storm. Some of these birds transported to unusual locations are probably younger or weaker birds. Once transported far from their usual range by a hurricane, it can take weeks to return home — if they can find the right foods on their way back.

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Early naturalist and accomplished artist John James Audubon painted Bachman’s warbler without ever seeing a living one. A friend sent him some skins of the warbler collected near Charleston, South Carolina. A hurricane may have contributed to the extinction of Bachman’s warbler.

In a worst case scenario, hurricanes may have dealt fatal blows to some bird species. For instance, a hurricane may have delivered the knock-out blow to a species of warbler that went extinct last century, according to the website, Field Guide to Extinct Birds. A hurricane that slammed into Cuba in the 1930s when most of the Bachman’s warbler population was wintering on the island might have wiped out enough of the population to make the survivors too rare and far-flung to find each other to breed. The warbler, sensitive to habitat destruction from logging and already in a steep decline, never seemed to recover. It was the ultimate example of keeping all of one’s eggs — or birds — in one unlucky basket.

Discovered in 1832 near Charleston, South Carolina, by the Reverend John Bachman, this warbler attracted little attention for the first half century after its discovery. Bachman sent some skins of the bird to his friend, the artist and early naturalist John James Audubon. Subsequently, Audubon painted this warbler by using those skins and Bachman’s description of the bird’s habits for inspiration. Ironically, considering he described the species for science, Audubon never actually laid eyes on an actual living Bachman’s warbler.

The last specimens of Bachman’s warbler were collected in Mississippi in the early 1940s. The last strongholds for breeding Bachman’s warblers in the United States were Fairfax County, Virginia, in the 1950s and South Carolina’s I’on Swamp in the early 1960s. The last photograph documenting a Bachman’s warbler was taken in 1954. in Charleston, South Carolina, bringing the story of this warbler full circle from its discovery in the same vicinity back in 1832. No Bachman’s warbler sightings have been confirmed since 1961, despite reports in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as reports made in the spring of 2000 and 2001 in the Congaree Swamp National Monument in Richland County, South Carolina. None of those sightings could be confirmed.

Like the ivory-billed woodpecker and Eskimo curlew, Bachman’s warbler is another bird likely to be labeled for the near future with the tag “likely extinct” associated with its name. Like the large woodpecker and the shorebird with a penchant for long-distance migration, the Bachman’s warbler went out with a whimper, not a bang, with most of its viable population snuffed out by an October hurricane just as the species returned to Cuba for the winter season.

Ruby-throat

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ruby-throated Hummingbirds make a non-stop crossing of the Gulf of Mexico. A hurricane in the Gulf during migration could have serious consequences for this small bird.

More recently, experts worried Hurricane Irma might have delivered a knockout blow to the population of another tiny species of warbler. The Barbuda warblers on the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda were feared exterminated in the wake of Irma. When the storm hit the island in September of 2017, its path affected more than 90 percent of the island and nearly wiped out the available habitat for the warbler, which already had a Near Threatened status. After the passage of the storm, participants in searches for the warbler turned up sightings of the bird. Nevertheless, the population status and ability to fully recover remains uncertain.

Science keeps adding to its knowledge of how birds are affected by hurricanes and other storms. A 2017 study showed possible consequences for a seabird known as the sooty tern in relation to hurricanes.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed open-access journal PeerJ, is the first to map the birds’ annual migratory path and demonstrate how its timing and trajectory place them in the direct path of hurricanes moving into the Caribbean after forming over the Atlantic.

Climate change threatens to bring about more frequent and powerful hurricanes, which could be bad news for the terns. Migration is a stressful undertaking for birds. If they encounter a strong storm in a weakened state, the results could be catastrophic. The study revealed a strong relationship between the numbers and locations of bird deaths and the numbers and locations of hurricanes. The study also showed that it isn’t just monster storms with the potential to cause devastation. Tropical Storm Delia, a small storm in the Gulf of Mexico in 1973, killed a lot of sooty terns. Essentially, the terns were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Shorebirds

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A mixed flock of Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers and a Ruddy Turnstone at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina. Hurricanes can interrupt the migrations of even these long-distance migrants.

Of course, the sooty tern is not a rare bird. About 80,000 or more of these terns are estimated to breed in the Dry Tortugas each year. That’s the entire point, however; Bachman’s warbler was also once considered a common bird.

All of these examples point to the resilience of birds, but there’s also a lesson to learn. We should never take any of our feathered friends for granted. While the winds and rains from a hurricane can decimate human lives, wildlife is not immune. Sadly, birds can weather many a storm, but sometimes they get swamped.

 

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Hurricanes: bane for birds, boon for birders

During a program I presented on birds and birding at the Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library, an attendee asked me if I knew what happens to birds in a hurricane? The question, no doubt prompted by such recent storms as Harvey and Irma, is of particular concern now that many of our favorite birds are migrating south along paths that could take them into harm’s way.

 

Well-known birder Kenn Kaufman shared his knowledge about birds and hurricanes when interviewed back in 2011 on the Audubon website. Among some fascinating insight he shared, Kaufman noted that the way intense storms affect birds depends on the species. He noted that a whimbrel, a large shorebird, would be more likely to fly through a major hurricane and live to tell the tale. On the other hand, such a storm would likely prove lethal for songbirds like warblers and thrushes.

 

To the questioner at my program, I also admitted that dedicated birders are, at times, rather atypical people. For a birder looking to find a totally unexpected bird, every hurricane comes with a proverbial silver lining. In the case of birders, that lining involves some of those stronger flyers — birds like whimbrels, noddies, terns, jaegers or tropicbirds — that get swept into the eye of the storm, carried far inland and dropped onto large lakes as the storm weakens.

 

My first direct observation of one of these hurricane-transported displaced birds took place back on Sept. 8, 2004. I had been drawn to Musick’s Campground on South Holston Lake by reports of an incredible fallout of such birds, which included species like whimbrel and red knot. More than a dozen fellow birders were present in the swirl of wind, mist and rain when a graceful bird with a dramatic two-toned black and white plumage flew overhead. I had no idea of the bird’s identity, but I knew instantly it was a species I’d never observed. I heard someone yell “sooty tern” — the identity of the shouter turned out to be area birding legend Rick Knight — and then pandemonium broke out as birders in rain gear got their binoculars into position to track the bird before it flew out of sight.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Sooty Terns nests in the Dry Tortugas in the Florida Keys. One was blown into Northeast Tennessee with Hurricane Frances in 2004.

 

We needn’t have worried. The bird lingered long enough for all those present to get a good look. I was accompanied that day by the late Howard P. Langridge, a well-known birder in both Florida and Tennessee. Howard had seen sooty terns, but he had found them when visiting the islands of the Dry Tortugas, west of the Florida Keys.

 

Two months after the exciting observation of that sooty tern, Howard passed away at age 81. So, even to this day, memories of that bird are tinged with some bittersweetness from the fact it was one of my last birding adventures with a man who served as a bit of a birding mentor for me. On our drive back home after that exciting encounter with the storm-driven tern, Howard talked excitedly about sooty terns and some of the other rare birds he had seen in a birding career that spanned more than 50 years.

 

In addition, we learned a valuable lesson that day. It’s an accepted fact that no bird is worth risking life or limb. It’s also a good idea to be careful where you park when going out to a rain-drenched lakeshore to look for birds from a diminished hurricane. Howard and I lingered after the other birders departed. When we started to leave, he discovered his car’s back tires had gotten stuck in the clay mud. With Howard behind the wheel, I pushed his car as the tires spun madly for traction. I ruined a new pair of denim jeans, but I got the car out of the mud. It’s one more memory that will put a smile on my face to this day.

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Photo by Jean Potter Caspian Terns at Holston Lake in Northeast Tennessee.

 

The sooty tern, blown to a Bristol lake in 2004 by Hurricane Frances, remains a highlight of my birding; however, it’s hardly the only unusual bird to be dumped on area lakes thanks to hurricanes that formed in tropic waters.

 

Hurricane Hugo back in 1989 remains one of the most legendary storms in the minds of most long-time birders in the area. I hadn’t yet taken up birding, but birders like Howard made sure I knew all about the bird bounty stirred up by Hugo. Two species of jaegers — parasitic and pomarine — were among the birds blown inland to Watauga Lake in Carter County. Seeing these birds usually requires a seat on a boat capable of traveling far out to sea to look for birds that hardly ever venture near the shoreline except for nesting.

 

BS-ForsterTern

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Forster’s Tern observed at Boone Lake in Northeast Tennessee.

Hurricane Hugo also blew more than 50 Forster’s terns — a record number for the region — to Watauga Lake. In addition, a single royal tern — a first record for Tennessee — was also detected by birders looking for birds displaced by Hurricane Hugo.

 

Much farther back, a high count of Caspian terns was recorded Sept. 5, 1964, at Boone Lake in the wake of Hurricane Cleo. The late Wallace Coffey, a well-known birder in Bristol, was present to witness those 130 Caspian terns. Both Caspian and royal terns are birds usually found along the Atlantic Coast in places like Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.

 

As I write this week’s post, I’m keeping track of the progress of more hurricanes forming in the Atlantic. The season has already produced some historically powerful storms. Could the projected path of one of these hurricanes bring storm remnants over Tennessee. Will area lakes see another incredible fallout of birds uprooted from their tropical homes? Time will tell. If something unusual does make an appearance, I hope to bring it to the attention of readers in an upcoming column.

 

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Join Bryan Stevens on Saturday, Sept. 30, for a one-hour morning bird walk on the trails at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton. The walk will begin at 8 a.m. from the parking lot at the park’s visitors center. Bring binoculars to help increase your chances of seeing some migrating birds along the park’s trails.