Hurricane Birds


(This column was first published in the October 20, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)


Buffalo meteorologist Steve Mclaughlin describes Hurricane Isabel as the "non-event of September. The storm was perfectly forecast as it hit the mid-Atlantic coast but turned a bit further west than expected as it approached western New York, tracking over eastern Ohio and Lake Erie instead."


My visit to Alexandria, Virginia last week confirmed for me how fortunate we were to have missed the fury of this vicious hurricane. Three weeks after the storm passed through that area, clean-up operations were still underway. The suburb my brother and I toured had been inundated by water driven from the Potomac River. It had reached five feet in the living rooms of some homes and ruined furniture was still stacked everywhere waiting to be picked up by sanitation trucks. Some of those same homes had also gone for weeks without power.


One early estimate would make this the most costly hurricane of all time, its cost exceeding the $26.5 billion of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.


Indeed, we not only had the good fortune to be missed by the storm but some bird watchers were rewarded by its approach.


When hurricanes like this pass from the sea over land, they often bring with them a number of seabirds seldom seen from shore and still less often witnessed at inland sites. Except when they visit land to nest -- usually on remote islands -- these birds spend all of their lives over the open ocean. To see them under these conditions, groups of birders charter ships to take them scores of miles out into the Gulf Stream.


But these birds that usually sail so effortlessly over the waves have little defense against hurricane winds and they are driven before the storm like flotsam. The lucky ones are forced to the edge of the pin-wheeling system, but those less fortunate are pushed ahead for hundreds of miles, in some cases over land.


And so it was that birders flocked to the shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario to look for exotic species brought by Isabel: the possibilities including petrels and shearwaters, jaegers and gannets, as well as unexpected species of gulls and terns.


I joined Bob Andrle, Fran Rew and Joe Thill at Hoover Beach in Hamburg for a few hours one sunny afternoon several days after the storm bypassed us. A strong on-shore westerly wind was blowing and the blue water of Lake Erie was creased with whitecaps. There were few birds out over the lake; even the gulls relaxed in troops on the beach.


After a long search Bob was able to follow one storm-petrel for several minutes in his telescope. Despite his careful instructions, however, the rest of us could not find the swallow-sized bird flying a quarter-mile out over the lake.


Other observers were more fortunate and Wilson's, Leach's and black-capped storm-petrels, parasitic jaeger, black-legged kittiwake, and least and sooty terns were reported in the region.


Sadly, the petrels died within a few days. Unlike land birds (and us) the physiology of many waterbirds is specially designed to accommodate them to seawater. They have salt glands that reduce the concentration of salt to levels their digestive systems can accommodate, the separated brine drooling back out from their bills. But in some species like the petrels, this specialization is so great that they cannot survive over fresh water, even when food is available. The bodies of a few of these rare visitors were picked up later from area beaches.-- Gerry Rising