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Rock you like a hurricane

September 8, 2008

There’s no small part of me that feels guilty about the measure of glee (maybe glee is too strong a word, perhaps interest is better) with which I look at hurricanes. We’re all too aware of the awesome destructive power of the wind and the waves. Hurricanes are bad news for a lot of people, and I certainly don’t mean to undervalue that, but beyond the bad parts of the storms there’s a sort of excitement for what they bring. Birds from tropical locales that get caught up in the winds and have to ride them out, many times far inland. Since I’ve moved to the east coast, I’ve grown more aware of this phenomenon, and I’m certainly not alone among NC birders that measure the destructiveness of storms against the storm birds that show up in their wake. One only needs to question a triangle area birder about Hurricane Fran, where petrels and shearwaters showed up on triangle lakes, or more recently, Tropical Storm Ernesto where I found the triangle’s first Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, to get an idea of this paradox.

So when Tropical Storm Hanna was recently bearing down on North Carolina, I was sort of looking forward to what it might bring. I could wait to see what local lakes would produce, but I was looking for something more substantial. So instead of waiting for the storm to pass over, I decided to head to the coast, just north of the point of landfall. While my wife was less than enthusiastic about this plan, she gave me pass to leave early Saturday morning, while the storm was still drenching my home, to head to Wrightsville Beach just north of Wilmington to see if I was better served by putting myself at ground zero.

By the time I got to the coastal plain the storm was largely past. I was about the only person on the highway heading to the coast, with the exception of caravans of utility vehicles every few miles. It wasn’t long before the clouds parted and the beautiful blue post-hurricane sky opened up. Needless to say, I was a tad disappointed, and worried that the fast moving Hanna would have already done it’s thing and the storm and the birds associated with it, had moved on. But while the storm clouds were gone, the wind was still fairly fierce, and when I arrived at Wrightsville Beach, the sea was churning.

I wish I had tales of pelagics from shore and jaegers and frigatebirds dotting the sky, but sadly I have nothing of the sort. There were birds fishing along the pier and huddled on the leeward side of the island, but they were the regulars. Royal, Forster’s and Least Terns, Brown Pelicans, Black Skimmers, and the requisite Gulls of Laughing, Herring, Ring-billed and Greater Black-Backed varieties. I went to several spots up and down the coast and saw little more than that. A pond in a Carolina Beach park hosted a half dozen Black Terns, new for the year, but not anything to write home about.

It wasn’t a total bust, I did learn the extent to which I’m willing to put up with wind-blown sand on my ankles, that stuff hurts, but perhaps my expectations were a tad high. The ocean is a big place and the birds can be anywhere on it. So in the hopes of pinning some storm birds down, I headed to Lake Waccamaw, a shallow pocosin lake about 60 miles inland. I figured that birds blown in by the storm would congregate at the larger bodies of water before making the long overland flight home. It wasn’t a bad thought really. While I didn’t find many unusual storm birds, in a group of Forster’s Terns I found a few Least Terns, fairly unusual this far inland and likely birds caught up in the winds. They sat on the end of a pier and allowed for fairly close approach as they seemed hesitant to fight the stiff breeze.

On the way out a pair of Cattle Egrets stood in a pasture, making it two new birds for the year, though not particularly the kind of birds I wanted from the start. Heading home under a clear blue sky led me to think that it I hadn’t driven through the storm in the morning, I’d never know a big one had passed through this area not even 12 hours earlier.

When I finally got home to check the listserve to see if anyone else was seeing anything storm related around the state I found that several reservoirs in the path of Hanna had hosted Bridled and Sooty Terns, birds that can be found in good numbers off the coast this time of year but almost never from shore. Even little Lake Waccamaw held the pelagic terns in the morning, though they had apparently bugged out by the time I’d arrived in the afternoon. These were the kind of birds I’d been looking for on the coast, though it seems that my theory that the birds stage at lakes before heading to sea seems to be valid. The ocean is simply too big to monitor all parts at once.

The biggest blow was that birders visiting Jordan Lake, not 15 miles from my home, immediately after Hanna blew past were treated to both terns, and all this time while I was hunting unsuccessfully on the coast. It would remain to be seen whether they stick around long enough for me to get to them, as I’d have to wait until the next morning. But I hoped so. More on that tomorrow.

  1. Mike permalink
    September 8, 2008 5:28 pm

    It really does suck to chase birds all over creation only to find that you’d have been better off close to home. Still, two new year birds are nothing to sneeze at.

  2. John permalink
    September 8, 2008 10:18 pm

    It does stink to chase birds and not have them turn up. I have a feeling that with storms like this, it’s best just to monitor local spots rather than drive long distances.

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