Some years ago when I was a budding birder living near the Atlantic Coast, I learned of one of the craziest aspects of hard core birding: hurricane birding. Much like the surfers who get excited by impending storms, we birders sometimes welcome a violent meteorological battering. Like most folks we mourn loss of life and property, but we also look forward to the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to have a brief encounter with a rare bird that hurricanes can provide.
Among a few dozen deaths, billions in property damage, and 30″ of water in my sister’s basement in Vermont, last week’s Irene left behind some “hurricane birds”. These are birds that get caught up in tropical storms and wind up in very unexpected places. The best examples are pelagic (open ocean) birds that one really never sees from shore unless you happen to be on some remote island where they breed. Other coastal species might just get pushed well inland of their normal range. I remember fondly that Hurricane Fran in 1996 brought Black Skimmers and Laughing Gulls to Bald Eagle State Park in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. That same weekend, I followed a Stilt Sandpiper as it flew in front of my car heading south on University Ave. in State College. Wacky stuff, as Johnny Carson used to say.
Post-Irene, Birders found species like these all up and down the coast and elsewhere in the eastern U.S. There were multiple tropicbirds flying up the Hudson River, for example. To put in perspective how weird that is, imagine a small herd of pronghorns showing up here in Stillwater, or alligators temporarily visiting a pond in Cincinnati.
According to the current report in eBird, it looks like at least TWELVE unusual species turned up in unusual places thanks to Irene.