November 6, 2012

Hurricane Sandy Aftermath: How Do Birds Weather the Storm?

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The legacy of Hurricane Sandy has been, unquestionably, one of loss, uncertainty and devastation for many people throughout the northeastern United States. But amidst the chaos and destruction, ornithologists have found the hurricane’s silver lining — a rare glimpse of seldom-seen birds soaring after the storm.

As climatologists have gotten better at understanding and predicting the courses of hurricanes, ornithologists everywhere have noticed a pattern: when hurricanes sweep from coastal areas inland, they bring with them sea birds that are rarely seen on land. The birds may be preemptively fleeing northward in search of shelter from the strong winds.  Others may be pushed from the sea to the coast by the hurricane’s winds or pulled along in the eye of the storm until it dissipates. In the latter phenomenon, known as entrainment, it’s safest for birds to stay in the eye of the storm and avoid the harsh weather surrounding them, according to ornithologists. As movement inland continues and the winds weaken, birds will also frequently drop down onto lakes and wait for the rest of the storm to pass.

At this point, many birds will remain perched until the storm has passed over them, before journeying back to their natural ranges. This method proves tough for coastal birds, which cannot easily survive away from the ocean.  Once the weather is clear, these birds follow rivers and streams back toward the coast as quickly as they can.

Although storms like Sandy present unique opportunities for bird enthusiasts, they can alter migratory patterns of birds, in some cases, delaying their schedules. When birds are entrained by storms and deposited hundreds of miles inland, they are frequently exhausted and don’t have the energy to make it back to the ocean. In these cases, the birds inevitably perish.

Marshall Iliff, Laboratory of Ornithology, said that everything changes very quickly after the storm, and birds are often gone by a day after.  Their exodus gives bird enthusiasts a very brief window in which to view the rare creatures.

“A lot of the birds that get steered off course in hurricanes, if they can’t fly back to the ocean, may die where they end up,” said Andrew Farnsworth, a New York City-based researcher at the Lab of Ornithology, said in a The World PRI interview.

“A lot do return to the ocean, but the birds that are exhausted end up on lakes, or ball fields or river valleys, and are exhausted enough so that they’re really not able to make the flight back,” he said.

Last year’s tropical storm, Irene, and more recently, hurricane Sandy, both created rare and unique opportunities for bird watchers in the Northeastern United States. Farnsworth said that in Manhattan he was able to see a Leach’s Storm Petrol and a Pomerine Jaeger, both of which are rarely seen on land but were, after Sandy, dispersed throughout the northeast. Both a Ross’s Gull and a group of Northern Lapwings were displaced inland by winds and a Red-billed Tropic Bird, usually found in the Caribbean, was found in New Jersey, suggesting entrainment.

These birds are seen so seldom because they live out in deep parts of the ocean.

According to Iliff, people can go on trips in order to see the birds, but these trips are frequently expensive, and never guarantee a good glimpse. He said that the reason people get so excited about bird movement during hurricanes, is that extreme weather creates once in a lifetime opportunities for bird enthusiasts, such as catching the landing of a Leech’s Storm Petrol on Cayuga Lake — an event that has only happened once or twice before.

When birds are pushed by winds northward or to the coast, known as displacement, they frequently gather in groups near the shore. It’s a combination of them being blown there, and preemptively flying to shore for shelter, said Iliff. He said that, in the wake of Sandy, these birds were difficult to observe, if at all, due to the dangerous storm surge, and that Sandy was an extremely unique situation, with winds coming from many directions and converging on the northeast. It was exciting for ornithologists to be able to see the effects because storms like Sandy are a rarity, said Iliff, so it would be interesting to observe the consequences.

Many of the ornithologists have shared their pictures of these rare sighting through eBird, an online checklist made in collaboration with the Cornell Lab of Orni-thology.  eBird allows recreational and professional bird watchers to share bird sightings with the national birding community. On the site, there is a compilation of data on the whereabouts of birds across the country. This can be accessed and analyzed by researchers who use the information to understand the way that birds move around and where certain birds are most likely to be found.

Farnsworth uses the data that is compiled by eBird to generate information for his own site, Birdcast. He uses modern computation to correlate eBird data with extreme weather events and radar predictions, generating predictions for where to find birds locally and in the face of extreme weather. This is a helpful tool for bird watchers who want to know what birds will be in their area, and where exactly they should go to see them.

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Original Author: Shauntle Barley