Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Hurricanes Bring Rare Birds
September 15, 2023
By Steve Grinley
With hurricane Lee predicted to pass off the coast of New England this Friday and Saturday, it sounds like it could have some wind and rain impact here along the coast. Storms like this do take their toll on birds, with many birds blown way off course and many succumb to the harsh weather conditions. Rare birds are often seen during the storm and in the aftermath.
I looked back at my stories concerning hurricane Irene back in 2011, which tracked up the Hudson Valley and was devastating to New York, Western Massachusetts and Vermont. We were spared the brunt of the hurricane Irene in our area, but it still blew in some rare birds. I thought that I would share some excerpts of my accounts back then:
“While officials warned people to stay off the roads during the storm, there are always some birders that will brave the elements and venture out in search of those rare birds that might show up during such an event. I guess I could liken it to “storm chasers”, those who drive toward tornadoes, rather than away from them. I chose not to be one of them.
“The rare bird alert on the Internet, Massbird, was down, so it was hard to know what was going on out there. A few of the more local bird alerts, like Bostonbirds and CapeCodbirds, gave a glimpse of a few rarities that had been seen. Text messages came through that a white-tailed tropicbird and a sooty tern, both southern birds – rare in the northeast, were seen at Quabbin Reservoir in western Massachusetts. E-mails revealed that sooty and bridled terns (another southern rarity) had been seen in other locales. Seeing these few reports made it all the more difficult to be indoors on a weekend day.
“By mid-afternoon, the eye of the storm had passed, the rain had pretty much stopped, and the winds subsided with gusts to only 40mph. … We were in Cambridge, so we decided to head down to Squantum and found hundreds of terns on a sand bar there. As I scoped the terns (which was a challenge with occasional gusts of wind), I found a black tern, and then another, and another. A small group of terns circled and came toward us, almost passing overhead. It was a flock of about twenty-five black terns, the most I have ever seen in Massachusetts at one time! I looked them over carefully as they passed, hoping for the rare sooty tern, but no luck.
“We then decided to head to Wollaston Beach. We had a few black terns out on the mud flats, but it was across the road in Black’s Creek where we found another large group of black terns. There were another forty or so flying around the creek, fishing as they went!
“We were up to about seventy black terns when I received a call from Bill Gette. He was calling to inform me that the power was out at Mass Audubon Joppa Flats. I told him about the incredible number of black terns that we were seeing at Wollaston Beach. Bill called back about fifteen minutes later and said that, based on our conversation about the black terns, he set up his scope and looked out at Newburyport Harbor from his home across from the seawall. He was looking at a hundred black terns!
“During the following day, as Massbird came back up and started displaying posts from during and after the storm, we were able to get a better idea of the number of rarities that were brought northward with Irene. There were sooty terns in Winthrop and on the Cape. Sooty and bridled terns were seen in Westport. A sooty tern was found along a road on Nantucket, kept overnight and was released the next morning.
“There was a white-tailed tropicbird found flying around a pond in Pittsfield and one was picked up off someone’s lawn in Canterberry, New Hampshire. That bird was still alive and taken to a rehab facility. There were two separate reports of brown pelicans off Cape Cod.”
Almost a week later, rare birds were still being discovered. An immature white ibis was found at Stage Island Pool on Plum Island. Margo and I re-discovered it along the Plum Island Turnpike on our way to the Island. Neither of us had seen a white ibis in Massachusetts before (though plenty in Florida),
While we were looking at the rare ibis, Doug Chickering called and had found an American Avocet at the boat ramp at the Salisbury Beach State Reservation, so we headed there where a Caspian tern and lesser black-backed gull was also seen.
The rarity excitement continued the next day when Bill Gette from Mass Audubon Joppa Flats stopped us along the road on the Parker River Refuge to tell us that they had just banded a yellow-green vireo at the banding station! This tropical bird is sometimes reported in southern Texas and, more rarely, in south Florida. This is the first record of yellow-green vireo on the East Coast north of Georgia! Bill said that this bird was still molting primary feathers, so it may have been here for a while. Birders searched the wooded areas along the refuge road, in the hope that his rarity was still around, but I don’t recall that it was ever re-found.
We don’t know what hurricane Lee will bring us, but if you decide to look for birds during or after the storm, the first rule is to stay safe. Find a spot that is sheltered from the wind and rain, often your car is the best shelter. As Irene showed us, rare birds can be found in any body of water and even from your house on your front lawn!