July 17, 2013

In The Eye Of The Storm

People are always astounded to learn that the fall bird migration on Long Island is well underway in mid-summer because we normally associate fall migration with cold weather. For many coastal and pelagic (oceanic) birds, the journey to their wintering grounds has already begun. From June thru November, the same time as hurricane season, these birds are already on the move.

As many coastal and pelagic birds are migrating vast distances over the Atlantic Ocean, they often encounter storm systems known as tropical depressions. These tropical depressions turn into tropical storms and often further develop and form into hurricanes. Fueled by warm moist ocean air rising upward from near the surface of the ocean, these hurricanes begin to rotate faster and faster in a clockwise formation creating an eye at the center of the storm. This eye of the storm can range anywhere from 20 to 40 miles wide.

Within the eye of the storm it is very calm and clear with very low air pressure (similar to a gorgeous spring day). As these birds collide with these storms offshore, they are carried great distances and are displaced throughout a region in which they are not commonly found.

As the hurricane passes over land and begins to weaken, it gives the birds caught in the eye an opportunity to escape. Exhausted and hungry, the birds drop out of the storm system and find themselves in a whole new scene. And for local birders, hopefully that new scene is here on the East End.

On August 29, 2011, the day after Hurricane Irene hit the South Fork of Long Island as a tropical storm, many of these birds landed on our south shore beaches battered and weakened. Early that morning my friend Jim Ash, Vice President of SoFo, and I headed down to Sagg Main Beach in Sagaponack to see if there would be any unusual birds to find.

As we set up our spotting scopes I peered through the lens, and saw a bird that resembled a common tern but was much larger, about the size of a seagull. "A Caspian Tern" Jim says.

For me, it's a life-bird that I've never seen before, and alongside it, a Sandwich Tern, another life-bird. Wow, two life-birds in a matter of seconds! Now it's a birding bonanza as we view and identify birds that a local birder would have to travel hundreds of miles or more to see.

We also observed Royal Terns, Black Terns, Forster's Terns and many Black Skimmers. Later that day, I heard reports of a Brown Pelican on Keyes Island in Three Mile Harbor, East Hampton, so I drove there and got to the best vantage point to view the island through my binoculars and sure enough there it was. I've seen Brown Pelicans before in Florida but never here on Long Island.

Just as quickly as these birds get rerouted, they rest for a few days and then head back out to sea to continue their journey.

So keep in mind the next time a storm like Hurricane Irene comes up the coast, after the storm passes, pick up a pair of binoculars and head down to the beach. There's a good chance you'll have some unexpected visitors waiting for you.

Be sure to check out SoFo's summer programs at www.sofo.org and join us on Sofo's Birding for Beginners: Coastal and Pelagic Birds off Montauk on August 25. For more information on this program or many others, call SoFo at 631-537-9735.

Frank Quevedo is the executive director of the South Fork Natural History Museum. Located in Bridgehampton, SoFo is the only state-of-the-art natural history museum on the South Fork. Check it out at sofo.org.

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