Shoreline Business

(This column was first published in the September 16, 1996 Buffalo News.)

For two reasons shorelines are in the news this week.

The phone call came on September 8, a Sunday evening. It was Bob Brock, my informant on the Buffalo Ornithological Society Rare Bird Network. Usually his call tells me the name and location of an unusual species that has turned up on the Niagara Frontier. I make notes and pass on the information to those next on the list.

This time the call took longer – there were eight rare birds. All had been seen across the Niagara River along the Lake Erie shoreline. And all are marine species that almost never venture inland. They had been brought to this region in the eye of Hurricane Fran, that strange calm center of a tropical storm that is surrounded by raging winds. For these birds it was an enforced trip of over 500 miles.

One was a laughing gull whose distinctive "ha ha ha" call is familiar to coastline residents but seldom heard here. Three related species joined it: Sabine's and Franklin's gulls and several sooty terns. Harrying them and the local ring-billed gulls were two long-tailed jaegers, piratical seabirds but splendid falcon-like fliers.

Rarest of all were a black-capped petrel and a Wilson's storm-petrel, two gull-like birds of the open ocean. They have strange tubes on their upper mandibles that contribute to sensory functioning. Even though I once joined a pelagic trip especially to observe one, I have never seen a petrel.

Rounding out the list was an American oystercatcher, a big, thick-set black and white shorebird with a huge red bill. Although it is fairly common along Long Island beach fronts, I know of only one previous record for this species in the entire Great Lakes region.

Only after these remarkable storms are such birds found inshore. After Hurricane Connie passed through this area in August 1955, for example, a storm-petrel appeared at Greg Sommer's Long Beach cottage. He picked up the exhausted bird and placed it in his bird bath. The bird drank briefly and then surprisingly flew away. The other species stand a good chance of returning to their oceanic environment, but unfortunately the petrels will almost certainly die. They won't find squid, their favored food, in Lake Erie.

Readers interested in searching for these and other rare birds can gain more information from the Buffalo Museum of Science Dial-a-Bird line managed by Dave Suggs. The number is 896-1271.

We were lucky with Hurricane Fran. There was no flooding or beach erosion here, but our beaches at this time of year are strewn with the detritus not only of summer storms but also of human carelessness. And that brings me to a second important beach front event.

I urge readers to join Sharen Trembath's annual Beach Sweep, this year to take place from 10:00 a.m. to noon next Saturday, September 21. The Great Lakes Beach Sweep of which this is a part has now been extended to coasts in 43 states and 72 countries. Although this activity is sponsored by the American Littoral Society, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the Center for Marine Conservation and dozens of local organizations, Ms. Trembath continues to be the moving force here. For her this is a year-round activity that culminates in this massive two hour effort.

Last year 40 tons of trash were picked up in New York State by 5000 volunteers. Call Ms. Trembath at 549-4330 to participate and beat those records.

And while you're working the beach, keep an eye out for other hurricane-driven bird visitors.