Monday, November 12, 2012

Birding in Superstorm Sandy

As anyone in the United States should know, a large storm hit the mid-Atlantic two weeks ago, bringing strong winds and rain to much of the eastern United States. This powerful storm brought hundreds of seabirds inland, causing jaegers to show up on inland lakes and storm-petrels to be found flying around major rivers. Birders all over the region flocked to locations where they could observe this unusual avian spectacle. For example, local birders at Beltzville State Park, just 9 miles from my house (as the tropicbird flies), found a number of incredible "storm birds" including Pomarine Jaegers, Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, Forster's Terns, Brant, all three scoter species, and a Cave Swallow. Wow. Due to strong winds, fallen trees, and dangling power lines along the roadways, I was unable to get to Beltzville. However, this did not mean I couldn't go birding. Throughout the day, I scanned the skies from my yard and porch hoping that something unusual would fly by.

For most of the day, the only birds moving overhead were small flocks of robins and the occasional Northern Flicker. Then, something changed. Around 3:15pm, I was working on moving boxes that were getting wet due to the newly-opened hole on the barn roof (thanks, Sandy). At one point, I looked to the north and noticed a large flock of small birds headed towards me. I quickly grabbed my binoculars and found the approaching flock against the dark gray sky. Their sudden movements and quick wingbeats quickly ruled out blackbirds, which is what I expected to see in such a large flock. These were something different. Before long, they were right overhead, and I could clearly see that these 30-40 birds were shorebirds, Dunlin in fact. These fast fliers disappeared into the fog and mist in a matter of seconds. But that was good enough for yard bird #182!

Flock of Dunlin
Now excited from finally seeing some interesting birds as a result of the bad weather, I set up a spotting scope on my front porch where I had a decent view of the sky and the Kittatinny Ridge, along which I imagined birds might be moving. Within minutes of scanning the ridgeline, I spotted another flock of shorebirds. This flock contained about 100 birds and moved right along the Kittatinny, which lies about a mile from where I was standing. As a result of this distance, "shorebird sp." is the best identification I could make of these distant specks, although it is very likely that these were more Dunlin. For the next hour or so, several flocks of presumed Dunlin passed overhead or along the major ridge.

Distant flock of shorebirds (likely more Dunlin)

 At one point, I was watching the shorebirds fly east along the ridge when a group of three ducks flew west across my binocular view. This got my heart rate up... who knows what ducks might show up as a result of the hurricane! I eventually re-spotted the group just before they disappeared into the fog--Mallards. Oh well.

The next fifteen minutes or so were slow, except for the passing of another shorebird flock or two. I then spotted a line of four distant ducks headed towards me. More Mallards, I figured. Nevertheless, I got the scope on them and focused on them one at a time. Male Mallard... male Mallard... female Mallard... WHAT?!?! I got enough of a look at the last bird to see that it was different, but as soon as I was able to focus the scope, the whole group of ducks disappeared into the fog, never to be spotted again. Based on the brief glimpse I got of the bird, it was likely a Northern Pintail, another locally unusual species, one that I had only seen from the yard once before. Soon after these ducks vanished into the mist, I observed two more ducks flying along the Kittatinny Ridge. These two ducks were clearly smaller than the numerous Mallards I had seen, but as luck would have it, they too dropped out of sight before I could get more than a quick silhouetted look. Darn... these could be awesome birds that I was missing. If only the visibility had been slightly better!

Although it was foggy and misty the entire time I was birding, there was very little steady rain... that is until I found something very intriguing. Just as I heard the sound of approaching rain, a group of about twenty dark birds appeared out of the mist from the western sky. Worried about the safety of my camera in the rain, I fired off a few quick shots before rushing for the cover of the front porch, from where I soon re-found the birds and got my binoculars on them. At this point I just about jumped for joy because of this new yard bird... Black. Scoter. A species I never even dreamed of seeing from the property. In less than a minute, the eastbound seaducks were out of sight, but I had just experienced something amazing and entirely unexpected.

Black Scoters flying east

Black Scoter flock flying in front of the Kittatinny Ridge
Unfortunately, after the scoters passed, things became extremely slow. The sky became even darker, the rain picked up, and birds stopped flying. I waited a while longer, but it seemed as if the heavier rain was going to stay. Just as I was wrapping things up, I heard a strange noise from the other side of the house. I ran out into the yard and watched as a flock of over 130 Brant flew low over the house! Honking the entire way, the gaggle moved quickly towards the southeast, soon engulfed by the same fog that had obscured many other waterfowl that day. Brant was the third new yard bird species for the day, bringing the yard list up to 184 species and the yard year list to 156 species!

Brant low over the yard

The only other exciting birds I saw that afternoon were 14 more Brant that followed the same course as the first flock.


No, I didn't see Pomarine Jaegers or Cave Swallows, but I still managed to have an awesome afternoon of birding thanks to Superstorm Sandy. It is terribly unfortunate that these birds can only be found in this area as the result of a destructive storm. As much as I would love to see seabirds in Pennsylvania, I hope it is a long time for another storm like this hits the region.

1 comment:

crabtreegardens said...

I enjoy reading every one of your posts but this one really interested me. During the storm I was concerned about the flooding of our basement, I never really thought about how this storm would affect so many creatures in addition to the people who had complete devastation. Thank you for opening my eyes. Sandi