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Hurricanes like Earl throw birds off course

Hurricane Earl picked up and threw a lot of exotic seabirds far from their normal habitats — and New England and Canadian birders have been out spotting them.
Images: Sooty terns
Sooty terns, shown here, are among the various seabirds that can be trapped inland during hurricanes.Getty Images
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Hurricane Earl picked up and threw a lot of exotic seabirds far from their normal habitats — and New England and Canadian birders have been out spotting them. Preliminary sightings are coming in of these "hurricane vagrant" birds in northern New England and especially Nova Scotia, where Earl made landfall.

"Nova Scotia birders birders are going to have a field day with this one," predicted ornithologist Brian Sullivan, just before the storm made landfall over the weekend. Sullivan leads the eBird project at Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "Usually when a storm looks promising for birds, there's a lot of buzz in the birding listserves."

Any hurricane which rumbles so far north tends to trap birds in the calmer air at the eye of the storm, or simply just blows seabirds so far off course they may never make it home again.

Seabirds often don't escape such powerful cyclones until winds weaken and the seabirds find something that resembles their home, whether it be a bay or a inland lake, explained Jeff Wells of the Boreal Songbird Initiative.

"Some of the larger birds that are in the marine environment can get back," Wells told Discovery News. "Frigate birds can also probably make it, as they are very large and are good fliers."

But hurricane vagrants aren't always so lucky, said Wells. Seabirds have been seen as far inland as Lake Ontario. For some birds, this is a death sentence.

On Saturday, more than 50 storm petrels these were spotted near Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Earl made landfall. These are open ocean birds that are rarely seen anywhere near land.

Other displaced pelagic seabirds seen there include a royal tern, sooty tern, sandwich tern, several laughing gulls, a Forster's tern and a few black skimmers. A decent showing of off-track birds, according to biologist and birder Derek Lovitch who was keeping count on his blog.

Seven years ago, said Wells, he was witness to twenty or thirty Wilson's petrels blown all the way to Cuba Lake in upstate New York by a hurricane. This is a bird that breeds on the coasts of Antarctica and spends the rest of its life far out at sea, including the North Atlantic.

"They headed south until they reached they hit the end of the lake and didn't know what to do," Wells recalled. "It was sad to see because we saw herring gulls chasing them down." The weakened, disoriented petrels were killed and devoured by the local gulls.

"We also saw an Arctic tern there and there had never been a record of one there," said Wells.

Despite the sad end to many of the vagrant birds, birders look forward to the chance to view birds they would normally never have a chance to see.

"It's kind of a sample of whatever was in the path of the hurricane," said Wells. It's potentially quite interesting: an accidental sampling of a strip of ocean.