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Chasing 'hurricane birds'

September 15, 2009
FWCNews @
By Chairman Rodney Barreto,
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

It's hurricane season and Florida residents need to be prepared.

Between 1851 and 2006, the state was battered by some 113 hurricanes, including 37 major storms measuring Category 3, 4 or 5. No other state comes close when you consider the overall hurricane landfalls and major storm totals.

However, hurricanes and tropical storms can bring in species of birds we normally wouldn't have the opportunity to see.

"As Hurricane Ike passed to the south of us in September 2008, I saw birds at Crandon Beach you wouldn't normally see from shore," said Roberto "Toe" Torres, a birder from Miami. "There were sooty shearwaters just off the breakers and many common and black terns, resting on the beach. A few brown noddy were flying just over the shore, and a Pomarine jaeger made a pass over the beach.

"But, the most amazing of all was the flock of about 15 white-winged scoters that came by right over the breakers," Torres said.

Torres was also at Black Point Marina on Biscayne Bay when Hurricane Dennis came through in July 2005. This area is about eight miles from the barrier keys and the open water of the Atlantic.

"In between the squall lines, there were hundreds of sooty terns and frigatebirds riding the storm. While we normally get a few frigates over the bay, sooty terns are almost always seen far offshore in the Gulfstream down here," Torres said. "I've been out on the water down here for most of my life, and I'd never seen so many pelagic (ocean-going) birds in one area."

Unusual birds can also be found far inland after storms. According to Rex Rowan, a birder in Gainesville, coastal and pelagic birds may be seen after nearly every hurricane.

"The pelagic species that seems to turn up most regularly is sooty tern. Others frequently seen include common terns and laughing gulls. Our most exciting stray was a black-capped petrel found in Newnans Lake in September 2004 after Hurricane Jeanne. However, the American oystercatcher that Hurricane Gordon blew onto Newnans Lake in September 2000 was pretty mind-blowing as well," Rowan said.

Other birds spotted in the Gainesville area after storms include a Leach's storm petrel and a red phalarope that came in after Tropical Storm Fay in August 2008. A magnificent frigatebird, a Hudsonian godwit, least terns, black terns, Forester's terns, royal terns and sandwich terns as well as black skimmers, Pomarine jaegers and parasitic jaegers also have been spotted around the Gainesville area.

If you're thinking about chasing these "hurricane birds," consider a few tips from those birders who have experience. First of all, don't even think about heading to the coast. That's where the worst damage is, and you will probably have a nearly impossible time getting onto the islands. Security officers probably will not let you in, and fallen wires and trees will also be a barrier. Those storm-blown birds will likely move quickly back out to sea.

Also, don't attempt to drive while it's still dark. There is the temptation to be at a lake before dawn if the hurricane's eye passed near the lake overnight. Fallen trees and downed wires don't have lights, and you can't expect utility crews to have cleared away trees before daylight.

Find as large a lake as you can near the eye of the hurricane. Birds head for large bodies of water, or even wet parking lots that look like water. Get to the lakes as soon as it's safe after the storm passes. The birds often leave quickly.

Enjoy the birding opportunity, but remember to be safe after a storm. Don't take chances in your quest to add to your life list.

As destructive as these storms are, taking the opportunity to watch the rare visitors they herd our way can help us turn the experience around and cope with the stress.

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