How Hurricane Sandy Affected Birds, and How They

Ross’s Gull. Photo: John Breitsch/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Hurricane Sandy swept a rare visitor to New York’s Finger Lakes Region: A Ross’s gull. This small, dove-like bird is seldom seen outside of the Arctic. It’s just one of the birds swept off its path by the storm. (Scroll down for birds to see and places to visit.)


Seabirds likely get pulled into a hurricane’s spiral, and then move into its calm eye to ride out the storm. “When the storm reaches land, some of them may start fighting the winds,” avian expert Kenn Kaufman tells Audubon in a Q&A about birds and hurricanes. “Others may go with it and travel with the eye until the hurricane dissipates. The majority of seabirds, if they are not too weakened from having flown for so long without food, will probably find their way back to shore quickly. They have great powers of navigation.”


(Remarkably, satellite transmitters reveal that whimbrels don’t try to avoid or ride out hurricanes—the intrepid birds force their way through the storms.)   


A northern gannet was spotted in West Fairview, PA. These birds spend most of their lives at sea, where flocks of hundreds of birds take part in spectacular feeding bouts, diving for fish from heights of up to 130 feet. Scroll down for a video of them diving. Photo: sosni/CC BY-NC/ND 2.0


Birders inland are making the most of this opportunity to see these temporary visitors. Pomarine jaegers, Leach’s storm-petrels, and red phalaropes, are among the feathered refugees being spotted on lakes, rivers, and reservoirs across the Northeast.


“It's mostly been the species we expected based on what is migrating through and what is currently out in the Atlantic at the latitudes the storm passed through,” says ornithologist Drew Weber, who is live blogging rare bird sightings across the Northeast on the Nemesis Bird. “The most surprising so far has been the Ross's Gull that showed up today at Long Point State Park on Cayuga Lake near Ithaca, NY.”


Weber recommends checking nearby lakes and major rivers—stressing that birders should make sure that conditions are safe before venturing outside—and visit for detailed weather and sighting reports. “The Delaware and Hudson Rivers should be particularly good after the storm as birds move down the rivers back toward the open ocean.”


While reports of injured or dead birds haven’t started coming in yet, they likely will soon. “They tend to show up in the days after a storm as they use up their fat stores trying to return to the ocean,” Weber says. “People should keep an eye out for stranded birds in parking lots and small bodies of water and take them to the closest rehabber.”


Also, you can help scientists track birds by recording all of your sightings in eBird, the fantastic online database developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon.


In the meantime, Weber’s adventure has just begun. This morning while looking for birds at Onondaga Audubon’s Derby Hill Bird Observatory along Lake Erie he saw white crossbills fly in from the lake and land on a spruce behind him. “Now I am off to see this Ross's gull,” he says. “It would be a lifer.”


MORE RESOURCES: The smart, savvy folks at eBird have excellent resources for those eager to see birds that Sandy blew in. Click here for their list of birds to watch for, including white-tailed tropicbirds, Cory’s shearwaters, and magnificent frigatebirds. And for suggestions for the best places to see birds, broken down by region, click here.



...And just for fun, here's a video of gannets feeding off the coast of Quebec this past August. Most dives are shallow, but the birds have been recorded going as deep as 70 feet. Just before entering the water, they extend their wings back and tuck them close to their body.