Storm Birds


(This 1130th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 18, 2012.)


No one should underestimate the power of any tropical storm. Witnessing the damage and the broken lives brought to our East Coast by Hurricane Sandy, we must consider ourselves most fortunate to avoid serious punishment by that storm.


But fortunate we certainly were. Even though the remnants of the of the storm center passed almost directly over Rochester, we received less than two inches of rain and maximum wind gusts of 43 miles per hour that were not even highest for the month. The damaging inland effects of the storm were instead flung out to its periphery.


All hurricanes do, however, have an effect on birds when the storms pass over land. And Sandy was no exception. It brought a number of rare birds to western New York.


Consider just one of those species: the Leach's storm-petrel. This is a tiny bird, its weight only half that of a robin, yet it spends almost its entire life skittering about over the world's oceans. It is rarely seen even at sea because, unlike some other storm-petrels, it does not follow ships to pick up food scraps. It visits land only to breed on remote islands, among them some off the Scottish coast.


Despite its normal range, a Leach's storm-petrel was seen on Lake Ontario from Fort Niagara State Park the day after Sandy moved inland. Very likely the same bird was seen near Hamilton, Ontario an hour later. Sadly, it will almost certainly die as it is not acclimated to fresh water.


This is just one of the rare birds recorded at the end of October, many of them almost certainly here courtesy of Sandy.


Next to the storm-petrel, the rarest visitor was a Ross's gull, a delicate little gull appropriately named for an Arctic explorer because that is its normal habitat. (I like its name too because it has three letters in a row, another kind of rare occurrence.) Also seen were numbers of pomarine and parasitic jaegers, several black-legged kittiwakes, and individual little, black-headed and Sabine's gulls.


All those are sea birds but several non-oceanic birds appeared as well. Individual great and cattle egrets were recorded as was a cave swallow.


All this happened at a time when the annual movement through the region of brant, a smaller relative of our ubiquitous Canada goose, and red-throated and common loons was occurring. It was an exciting time for birders.


What brought these birds to this region? Consider two hypotheses.


My first guess is that they were driven ahead of the sstorm by the strong leading winds of the hurricane. Remember that most of those oceanic species in particular are birds that sail continuously. Unlike land birds their legs and feet are very weak and they therefore have no ability to anchor themselves.


Then, as the winds reduce and they reach inland water -- in western New York that usually means the Finger Lakes and Great Lakes -- the exhausted birds find a substitute for their usual habitat and birders record them. A few years ago a storm driven petrel was even found resting quietly in an backyard bird bath.


In the case of Hurricane Sandy, however, my second guess is worth considering. Recall that this storm rotated counter-clockwise. That is what brought us leading winds from the northeast. At the northernmost extent of the circulation its winds were out of the east. This was also a huge storm, its effects covering hundreds of thousands of square miles. Thus many of our visitors could have been drawn in from the northeast, arriving here not over land but from the open sea through the Gulf of St. Lawrence, down the St. Lawrence River and westward through Lake Ontario.


I invite you to take your pick or even to come up with a third hypothesis.


What then brought those egrets and the cave swallow to our region? I think that the egrets were affected by the first hypothesis, driven north by the storm.


Although the case of the cave swallow is more complicated, I expect that it too was driven north. Its normal range is southern Texas but it has been recorded in recent years wandering along the East Coast and even here as well.-- Gerry Rising