Migrating Birds And Hurricanes

hurricane photoWhile we were writing our second installment for Migration 101, Hurricane Florence decided to take aim at the Carolinas. Last year, we dealt with Hurricane Irene here in Florida. We know the devastation a hurricane can bring. News of Florence gave us pause: While we humans are watching the Weather Channel to follow what’s happening during hurricane season, what’s happening with migrating birds?

So we put aside the blog we were working on and decided to address current events. (We’ll post that piece early next week.)

We know that vast bird populations head south every day from late August through October. Instinctively, most birds wait for favorable winds and weather before starting their migratory flight. The ideal time is just after a low-pressure system passes. After the system passes to the east, there may be winds from the northwest. If they take off when the conditions are right, there’s a chance that they won’t encounter a hurricane.

birds at stormy seaOther birds, though, may be far offshore when the hurricane threatens. When they fly into one of these systems, they have no way of detecting what’s ahead of them. And, though migrants take on enough fuel to make the 600-mile Gulf crossing in favorable winds, they may not have enough energy to survive if they have to fight against headwinds.

The unhappy fact is, there are substantial numbers of little migratory birds that get taken out during severe tropical storms. In addition, a great many exhausted birds may be pushed back in the direction they came from and can end up at a location they may have left a day or two before.

Strong fliers that get caught in the end of the hurricane’s spiral, will generally move toward the eye of the hurricane. If they reach the calm of the eye, they’ll try to stay in there and travel with the storm until it reaches land or dissipates. In that case, the majority of seabirds, if they are not too weakened from having flown for so long without food, will use their instinctive navigation ability and find their way back to shore quickly.

hurricane satellite shotLarge storm systems may drive some birds far off-course. Strong-flying birds often try to outrun the storm, carried by the winds at the forefront of the weather system. Brown Pelicans, Magnificent Frigatebirds, and other formidable seabirds have been recorded far inland, sometimes more than a thousand miles from the coast, after hurricanes. Some of these birds may find their way back; others, unable to deal with the unfamiliar terrain or to find appropriate food in freshwater, may die.

With the aid of a satellite tracking tag applied by scientists at the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, there’s evidence that a migrating Whimbrel actually flew a long loop around a tropical storm on its 2,000 mile flight from Hudson Bay in Canada to Brazil.

What can a backyard birder do to help birds after a hurricane?

Birds and hurricanes have coexisted seemingly forever. And history has shown that healthy bird populations rebound from the effects of natural disasters. The most helpful thing you can do, even if you’re outside the area immediately affected by the hurricane, is make sure your backyard feeders and birdbaths are full. The food and water you provide can help both birds that lost food resources in a storm and those that may need to refuel in order to continue their migration.

Since here in Florida we’ll be south of the hurricane, we’re stocking up on seeds, suet, and mealworms.

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