Goodnight, Irene (or, hurricane before and after)
Hurricane Irene smashed into North Carolina Saturday morning as a Category 1. It was the first actual hurricane to make landfall in the state since Hannah in 2008, and while the storm didn’t connect with the fury that everyone was worried about, the entire eastern third of the state was whacked pretty hard, with the Outer Banks in particular getting the brunt of the storm surge from both sea side and sound side. The rest of the coastal plain was subject to torrential rain and sustained tropical storm force winds. It could have been a lot worse, but try telling that to the people still underwater.
I have mixed feelings about hurricanes. There certainly is something primal and exciting about the power of a storm like Irene, but that’s probably coming from a midwestern kid who never had to witness the destruction first hand. Since I’ve moved to North Carolina I’ve weathered a couple hurricanes and a fair number of tropical storms. I’m far enough inland that none of them have affected me beyond some marginally tropical storm level winds and the occasional burst of day long rainfall. Those monster storms that push inland to the Piedmont are thankfully few and far between (the last was Floyd in 1999), and most of my feelings towards hurricanes from my safe spot inland are tinged with an excitement, however reluctant and ill-advised in a hurricane prone state, for the possibilities of storm waifs, those birds the hurricane scoops up and spits out miles, even hundreds of miles, inland.
But first, with the prospect of heavy rain on the horizon, I had to make one last go at the mudflats on Falls Lake at Ellerbe Creek in the event that they were swamped. I hauled out there in the gusting wind and spitting rain to make my stand. I would find a Western Sandpiper if it killed me, and this was one of those times where the possibility that such a statement wasn’t mere hyperbole was increasingly evident.
As luck would have it, I did find a solitary Western Sandpiper foraging away with a very anxious seeming group of Semipalmated and Pectoral Sandpipers. Success!
I started walking down to the end of the peninsula, finding nothing of note but some Egrets ineffectively fighting the wind. I felt a bit like them as I put my head down and walked on before realizing that I wasn’t going to find anything notable and turned back. I stopped at an overlook as the wind took a serious turn to the northwest, in the hopes that a Frigatebird or some such windblown pelagic-ish species might make its way past me. No luck there, but a pair of Caspian Terns and, from a different vantage point, a solitary Black Tern, made the stop well worth while.
I was ready to take my three birds and go home happy when I was lounging away on my sofa, watching the trees in my yard twist and turn when what popped up on my computer but reports of legitimate storm waify birds from nearby. I asked my wife for permission, received an exceptionally exasperated look (though the permission was, in fact, granted) and booked to Lake Crabtree County Park near the airport where three species of inbound terns were cavorting in the gusty, spitty weather to my delight. In short order I’d picked up the coastal trifecta of Royal Tern, Common Tern, and Least Tern, just in time to run home and read that Sooty Tern had been reported at not one, but two nearby lakes. By the time I was free again, the stormy weather had abated and any waif with good sense realized what was up and split from the Piedmont with a vengeance. I never got a Sooty Tern, but I’m ok with that. Which is really the attitude only one who already has an inland Sooty can say. Because I do. Bridled too, actually. So there, I guess.
The next day, which dawned clear and warm and without any sign of a major storm system’s passage, I had a mind to try to find some Sooties of my own on Falls Lake (this was before I realized they’d probably gone), only to find all of the access points closed because of “weather”. I looked into the clear blue sky, muttered a curse under my breath, and headed off to the mudflats to see if any good shorebirds had been blown in. The answer was a unfortunate no, but I did find the fall’s first Short-billed Dowitcher, plus a Stilt Sandpiper, plus a pair of Sanderlings huddled with some Semipalmated Sandpipers that may or may not have been storm waifs (my guess is that yes, they were, if only because lots of people saw lots of Sanderlings about yesterday when there were only two to three around before), but the little beach combers are hardly what you have in mind when you consider storm waifs.
But all in all it was hardly a disappointing weekend, I pulled down an amazing nine new birds for the Triangle Big Year. Granted, most of them with the exception of the three coastal terns were probably expected, but to get them all in one fell swoop suggests that may, just maybe, I might crack 200 for the local Big year thing. And that is not a bad accomplishment.