Author Archives: Team eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

About Team eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The six of us work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Chris Wood, Marshall Iliff and Brian Sullivan coordinate eBird -- the global bird-recording scheme that has gathered 170 million records from over 150,000 users from every country in the world. Andrew Farnsworth coordinates BirdCast, a cross-disciplinary collaboration with computer scientists to predict regional and continental bird migration. Jessie Barry coordinates Merlin Bird ID, an app that uses crowdsourced data to help people identify common birds, currently focused in North America.. Tim Lenz is our eBird Programmer. In our free time, we are all Bird Race addicts and together we hold several Big Day records -- including the North American record of 294.

White-tailed Tropicbird—a potential hurricane prize!

Birding Tropical Storm/Depression Joaquin in Europe

The landfall of tropical low pressure systems–whether hurricanes or their weaker cousins tropical storms and tropical depressions–is more often a North American phenomenon than a European one. Birders in the USA and Canada are increasingly well-prepared for the seabird bounty that these storms can bring. While these storms can be devastating from human and societal perspectives, they can be positively thrilling for the birder that finds a safe and dry place to observe the action during and after the passage of the storm. As we write, Tropical Storm Joaquin is churning across the Atlantic and is currently forecast to make landfall (or to affect land as its circulation gets very close to shore) in western Europe as either a Tropical Depression (winds up to 64 kph) or a Tropical Storm (winds of 64-117 kph). Although Joaquin is weakening as it approaches Europe, European birders should take note because of the very fact of a storm crossing the Atlantic as a Tropical Storm is a rare event and should begin planning now to observe the avian effects of the storm.

Europe has previously received effects of dissociated tropical systems, but it is rare that a tropical system maintains its intensity sufficiently to retain the title of a Hurricane or Tropical Storm. Although the exact area of landfall remains uncertain, portions of the Iberian Peninsula at present have the highest likelihood for the storm’s arrival in Europe. This would be similar, in terms of landfall, to the arrival of perhaps the only previous tropical system to arrive in Europe as a tropical system — Hurricane Vince in October 2005. Joaquin’s circulation will remain intact even as it deteriorates into a Tropical Depression and there is a high probability that it will entrain some spectacular rarities from the Nearctic. Below is a guide to birding in the storm and some predictions about what to expect. This guide may be particularly relevant to those of you in the vicinity of the Azores and in Iberian Peninsula. There has already been a rare bird in the Canary Islands, probably not due to Joaquin, but a result of strong low pressure systems’ passages across the Atlantic Spain’s second Bobolink!

Birding in a hurricane or Tropical Storm–when done safely–can provide some of the most exciting birding a birder will ever experience. Rarities can become the expected and some birds or spectacles may be once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. It also is a great time for those interested in coming up with their own plan and finding their own birds. Since many birds disperse quickly after a storm, hurricane birding does not favor the twitcher, who rarely can arrive in time to catch a given rarity. Making a plan, and having it pan out, only adds to the reward.

There are a couple plans to consider: 1) coastal or coastal bay seawatching; 2) inland lakes, reservoirs, and rivers. If winds remain strong, birding inland sites may be just as exciting as coastal ones. Read on below for more information.

Our advice is to make your plan now and adjust up until the arrival of the storm. Once you have picked your spot, commit to it and have faith that your plan will produce with patience. In North America, it has often taken a lot of patience to be rewarded with rare birds–this list and this list for example were the rewards of a full-day watch that began at 9am (with hourly lists documenting the arrival and passage of the storm.) However, as the storm passes and the winds shift, you may well want to relocate to a site more well-situated to winds from a different direction. For example, if you are on the south side of a peninsula as the storm approaches with southerly winds in your face, you may want to switch to the north side as the storm passes, to keep the winds in your face (and ensure that seabirds are pinned along the shoreline).

If you bird globally–and keep your records in eBird–please be sure to enter them promptly so that the best information on the storm and its birds can reach others. If you don’t use eBird, now would be a great time to start by entering your records from this historic Tropical Storm Joaquin.

TRACKING THE STORM

A few good sites to watch for the latest predictions and news are:

Weather Online: Tropical Storm Joaquin.

Weather Underground – Predicted storm track

Earth Wind Map

RARITIES TO WATCH FOR

What to expect from a storm that crosses the Atlantic with its circulation intact is a challenge to predict. There is not much precedent, so some fascinating questions will be answered by the intrepid (and careful!) birders that go birding in this storm. Among them:

  • How will the avian load of a trans-Atlantic storm compare? What birds are seen after hurricanes depend on the storm’s track, strength, path, and speed. The behavior of the birds are also a factor, with more aerial species more apt to become entrained. Some birds may become entrained but simply cannot survive aloft in the wind field for a very long time. Joaquin formed in late September (around 29 September) in the Bahamas and did not move substantially northwards until 3 October. It hit Bermuda 5 October and is forecast to make European landfall 4 or 5 days later. Can tropical seabirds remain with the storm that long? Those that do make it may well be quite hungry and weakened, so may be easier for birders to find and might hang around longer. Will its passage over relatively depauperate waters allow storm-blown birds to “drop out” or will they remain with the storm?
  • Sooty Terns – Will this quintessential hurricane bird get deposited in the Europe for an historic landfall?
Sooty Tern—the classic hurricane bird, this one displaced by Tropical Storm Hanna

Sooty Tern—the classic hurricane bird, this one displaced by Tropical Storm Hanna

  • What of Bridled Tern? – In the United States, Sooty Tern tends predominate in hurricanes, and unfailingly is the one more likely to get deposited inland. When Bridled occurs it tends to be able to better resist transport inland, and instead turns up coastally in bays, seawatches, or as weakened or moribund birds on beaches. If Bridleds occur, will the pattern hold? Or, since Bridled Tern occurs farther north (regularly to Massachusetts in late summer), will it be proportionally more prevalent than the more southerly Sooty Tern?
  • Capped Petrel (or Black-capped Petrel), Band-rumped (Madeiran) Petrel (or Band-rumped Storm-Petrel), Red-billed Tropicbird, and Magnificent Frigatebird – Will these birds, also well-known for their occurrence in North American hurricanes make European appearances? Leach’s Petrels are sure to be common in this storm as well.
  • What real European rarities might occur? Two candidates to be ready for include White-tailed Tropicbird and Audubon’s Shearwater. For the tropicbird, the recent haul from Hurricane Irene should have European birders hopeful. Joaquin passed right over Bermuda, a stronghold for White-tailed Tropicbirds. While they are less frequent in October, there are still plenty around–all it takes it one for a country first! For the shearwater, confirmation of the species identification may be the biggest challenge, but the storm has been crossing prime waters for the species that have been historically warm. For example, off coastal Massachusetts state record counts for the shearwater (and tropicbird!) were set this year in record high water temperatures. Here is one well-illustrated list.

Below is a hurricane birding primer that we have posted in the past on eBird so that birders can prepare for storms and plan their birding to get the most out of the storm. While Joaquin is unlikely to be as dangerous as many United States hurricanes have been, we still include the “Safety First” section in full. The allure of rare birds can be great, but we encourage everyone to be extremely cautious, heed local warnings, be especially careful about coastal flooding, and give this storm the respect it deserves.

HURRICANE BIRDING — AN eBIRD PRIMER

SAFETY FIRST !!!

To reiterate, remember that hurricanes and tropical storms are devastating and dangerous events. Driving in rain is bad enough, but driving in rain and hurricane force winds can be deadly. Avoid crossing bridges in high winds. Downed trees and powerlines, blowing debris, and other drivers only add to the peril.

Storm surge flooding is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of such storms. Since a surge of 15 ft or more can occur, many otherwise “safe” areas might be deadly in a hurricane. Do not take any chances with driving through flooded areas and do not do anything that might trap you in a low-lying area that is being flooded.

If you are considering looking for birds before or after the storm, make sure you are being safe during the storm’s passage. Don’t even consider intentionally putting yourself in the center of the strongest part of the storm.

SHELTER

Whether birding in the advancing storm or after the passage of the storm, you will need shelter from both wind and rain. If you plan any birding in the storm, think hard about what sites (overhangs on buildings, hotels with rooms facing a lake, river, or ocean, etc.) will provide shelter for you and your optics and not be facing directly into the expected wind direction. Birding from your car can sometimes be effective and safe, since an open car window facing away from the wind can be quite effective. Think in advance about how to use your telescope, either on a tripod or a window mount, from inside your car. Bring paper towels to dry off wet optics!

WEATHER

Understanding hurricanes is important. Hurricanes are cyclonic, so the winds are rotating counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere. This means that northeast quadrant of an advancing storm will have winds from the southeast, and that those winds will shift to become southwesterly as the storm center passes to the west. This is important to understand since seabirds that do not like to fly over land may be ‘pinned’ against shorelines in the high winds of a hurricane. As the storm passes, you may want to shift your strategy, and be sure to consider shifting winds as you do so. Also remember that the northeastern quadrant of the storm has the strongest and most dangerous winds as well as the most rain. After the storm passes, conditions can quickly clear up and visibility can be excellent.

BIRDS IN THE STORM

One important general pattern is that the eastern sides of hurricanes tend to have higher loads of displaced birds than the western side. This could be because the tighter isobars here keep birds more effectively entrained within the storm. But note that in Hurricane Bob most rarities in New England were along the path of the eye.

Numerous reports also refer to birds being ‘trapped’ within the eye of storms, and many observers have seen large numbers of rarities in the calm eye of storms, although we would NEVER recommend intentionally putting yourself in the path of a hurricane with a well-defined eye (these tend to be stronger storms).

One consideration is how birds will behave in relation to obstructions. Most displaced birds will want to stay over water if possible, but tubenoses may be more closely tied to water than terns, for example. At a given reservoir a shearwater, storm-petrel, or even Pterodroma petrel is likely to stay for the day, maybe departing overnight. But terns, gulls, and shorebirds may depart if the weather allows; your exciting Sooty Tern may pick up and fly over the treeline and away. Note also that certain seabirds, especially boobies and gannets, shearwaters, and Pterodroma petrels, seem to avoid crossing bridges. There are several indications that birds like this may feel ‘trapped’ on a given side of a bridge. This could be a factor as you plan where to check for birds.

Leach's Petrel—a classic hurricane bird!

Leach’s Petrel—a classic hurricane bird!

Hurricane strength obviously has a bearing on how many birds are displaced, and roughly speaking, stronger storms carry more birds than weaker ones. However, strong hurricanes that dissipate to Tropical Storms can still carry birds long distances, ESPECIALLY if that dissipation occurs after the storm makes landfall. Storms that weaken to Tropical Storms while still at sea typically carry surprisingly few displaced seabirds.

SITES TO LOOK FOR BIRDS

Before the storm

An advancing hurricane will have a large front of winds blowing from the southeast in its northeast quadrant. If birding before the storm, pick a site where southeasterly winds will pin birds against the shoreline, or better yet, concentrate them in a bay or river mouth. Watch for storm birds flying from south to north with the winds at their backs. Often the local birds may be flying any which way, but the interesting storm birds will be heading up from the south fleeing the path of the encroaching storm. Sometimes rarities like Sooty Terns can fall out at inland lakes with the storm center still many hundreds of miles to the south. For example, Sooty Terns turned up at an inland lake in Maryland at 2pm on Friday, 6 September 1996, while the storm center of Hurricane Fran was still south of Cape Hatteras. It pays to get out and try, but do so safely and beware the storm surge and encroaching storm.

During the storm

Birds can be anywhere. Check any spot with water, especially rivers, large lakes, or inland bays. Even small lakes, ponds, or wet fields can generate exciting birds, especially shorebirds. If you can’t get to water, just look up. Some lucky birders have picked up Sooty Terns and other surprises right over city rooftops with no water in sight! Try to get a look at any grounded bird that a friend or relative reports to you and make contact with rehab centers that might receive and rehabilitate rare birds.

After the storm

It can often be difficult to connect with displaced seabirds after the passage of the storm. Check lakes for rare seabirds that may feel “trapped” on the lake until nightfall. Check rivers and coastal bays for birds reorienting back to saltwater, especially the eastern sides if westerly winds are ‘pinning’ birds to a given shoreline. Theoretically, there could be several days worth of commuting rare birds along major rivers.

Be alert for any sick, dead, or dying birds, since these could represent rarities. Check known shorebird spots, tern concentration spots, gull roosts, etc. to see if any rarities have stopped for a rest. Bays behind barrier islands can often trap seabirds just after a storm, and often the seabirds will also feel trapped by bridges. If there is a route back to the ocean, they may eventually find it, but many tubenoses (e.g., shearwaters and storm-petrels) might feel ‘stuck’ in a barrier island bay even if the ocean is just 200m away if they simply flew over the narrow strip of land.

Usually most rarities occur within a few hours or at most a day of the storm’s passage. Only on very rare occasion do species like Sooty Terns or tubenoses occur longer than 24 hours after a storms passage, and many seem to leave overnight. Very large lakes, especially the Great Lakes, can sometimes hold rarities for up to a week though, so be sure to get out birding as much as you can after a storm and see what is about. Frigatebirds in particular are famous for occurring well before and well after storm passage.

SPECIES TO WATCH FOR

Most of these species can be found at any season, although southern seabirds in general peak off the East Coast in late summer and early fall (when juveniles have dispersed and when waters are warmer). The few species with more significant seasonality are mentioned. In addition to the birds listed below. It certainly pays to check every bird carefully in storms. Some passerines, or highly aerial birds like swifts, could be displaced by storms as well. Check anything you see with care!

The below birds are ones with a history of showing up in odd places in clear association with Hurricanes and Tropical Storms.

SOUTHERN RARITIES

The following species are regularly transported up from the south by hurricanes:

Capped Petrel (or Black-capped Petrel) — One of the most often displaced tubenoses inland, in North America Black-capped Petrels have turned up on inland lakes and reservoirs many times. Interestingly, in true hurricanes they are probably more likely inland than species like Great or Cory’s Shearwater, which vastly outnumber Capped Petrel in nearshore waters off the U.S..

Capped Petrel (Black-capped Petrel)

Capped Petrel (Black-capped Petrel)

Trindade Petrel — A long shot, but in North America, it has as turned up inland about 4 times and has turned up coastally at least a couple times in Virginia. To be watched for, especially since warm water in 2015 north to waters off Massachusetts could be good for the species.

Fea’s Petrel — Has turned up inland at least once in a storm, in Virginia in the epic Hurricane Fran of September 1996. Probably much more likely in Europe, especially if the storm takes a more southerly track. Bermuda Petrel has yet to be found in a storm, but is to be watched for.

Band-rumped Storm-Petrel — Along with Leach’s Petrel, Band-rumped Petrel has turned up inland numerous times in conjunction with hurricanes. The longer wings and more aerial behavior of the Oceanodroma storm-petrels may be part of the reason they outnumber Wilson’s inland, despite the fact that Wilson’s are much more common nearshore. Presumably, European Storm-Petrel would be scarce inland, relative to the two Oceanodroma.

Check any inland (storm-) petrel carefully for Band-rumped!

Check any inland (storm-) petrel carefully for Band-rumped!

Brown Booby — This species has been exploding along the East Coast, with annual records now in areas where the species was known from only a handful of records prior to 2005. (See its eBird map here). Several records well up the East Coast in relation to storms. Masked Booby has almost never occurred well to the north in storms, but should be watched for. No confirmed inland records of either booby in relation to storms.

Tropicbirds — Both White-tailed and Red-billed Tropicbirds have been found in conjunction with hurricanes and Tropical Storms, although most often they have been found grounded inland and turned in to rehabilitators or found dead. Notable recent records of live, flying birds have come from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (White-tailed) and Cape Cod (twice; White-tailed). Summer 2011 was one of the best tropicbird years ever, and Hurricane Irene carried a significant tropicbird load. A pelagic trip off Massachusetts found four in August 2015, adding to just seven or so previous state records, so 2015 was perhaps the best year ever for the species offshore.

Magnificent Frigatebird — Probably significantly more likely in June-August than later in the fall, although records of storm-displaced frigatebirds in North America extend to October and even November. Frigatebirds are famous for occurring well before a storm’s arrival and well afterwards, presumably because they’re so good in the air that they can easily soar on winds at the periphery to give the storm a wide berth. Watch for frigatebirds up to a day before the storm’s arrival and for up to a week after it has passed. Be alert for other species of frigatebird as well (i.e., always identify frigatebirds with great care)!

Sooty Tern — Probably the quintessential hurricane bird, Sooty Terns are highly aerial at sea and very likely to be displaced. Most storms that affect the East Coast of North America between August and October carry a good number of Sooty Terns. Look (and listen– “wide-awake”) for them at any body of water during or after the storm’s passage, or along coastlines where northeasterly winds may pin them to the coast. Watching a river or bay where seabirds may return to the sea may be the best strategy, and be alert for exhausted birds at any location or birds that join terns roosts. Many will be dark juveniles, which can be easily mistaken for noddies.

Bridled Tern — Generally speaking it is rarer than Sooty Tern in conjunction with storms, perhaps because it is overall less aerial than Sooty Tern and less apt to fly at great heights (where long-range displacement may occur). Much more likely to occur coastally than inland–inland records are especially rare and should be very carefully documented with respect to Sooty Tern. Previous storms have displaced large numbers to coastal locations (e.g., 130 at Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, Virginia, in Hurricane Isabel 2003) and scattered birds coastally as far north as Maine and Atlantic Canada.

Although not as regular as Sooty Tern—there is still a chance to find a Bridled!

Although not as regular as Sooty Tern—there is still a chance to find a Bridled!

Brown Noddy — Just a couple records, all coastal, and many others of suspected noddies that either did not consider or did not eliminate juvenile Sooty Tern. While Brown Noddy is a species to be watched for, it is likely to be very very rare and incautious observers must take great care to eliminate juvenile Sooty Tern which is also all dark.

South Polar Skua — This is one to watch for. Although most have departed, this storm is not too late to bring one or a few to Europe.

COASTAL SPECIES

The below species are more typically coastal as compared to the more pelagic species listed above. Since Hurricane Joaquin hit coasts in the Bahamas, but not since, these species may be more scarce in this storm. Still, they are to be watched for!

Royal and Cabot’s Terns — Regularly pushed up from the south in storms. Much rarer inland, but to be watched for, especially in stronger storms. Obviously, Royal Terns in the storm could well pertain to American Royal Tern (Thalasseus maxima maxima) and Sandwich Terns should be checked carefully for features of Cabot’s Tern (Thalasseus [sandvicensis] acuflavida).

Black Skimmer — Rare north of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, hurricanes can often transport large numbers of skimmers north. Significant landfalls have occurred in Canada, so why not Europe? Unlike Sooty Terns and tubenoses, skimmers and certain other terns like Royal and Sandwich can often linger for many days or even weeks after hurricanes. For Joaquin though, the passage may not have been closoe enough to land to pick up highly coastal species like this. Still, be ready, just in case!

Least Tern — Almost never occurs inland except in hurricanes, but numbers can be swept inland in storms that occur before mid-September. Hurricane Joaquin may be a tad too late. If they can get swept inland, why not across the Atlantic? Separate from Little Tern with great caution (calls are helpful).

Forster’s Tern — Although this species is not very pelagic, it is migrating now in large numbers and might easily occur in this storm. Watch for it!

Check terns carefully—a Forster's could be hiding behind their black mask.

Check terns carefully—a Forster’s could be hiding behind their black mask.

Laughing Gull — Along the East Coast of the USA, displacement of gulls is relatively rare, but most species are regular inland. The one that is not regular inland–Laughing Gull–rarely seems to get moved inland by storms. But it is also fairly pelagic and might get swept up in this storm. Other gulls should be watched for too, including especially Bonaparte’s and American Herring Gull (Larus argentatus smithsonianus).

Wish list birds — White-faced Storm-Petrel is still prevalent in the waters traversed by this storm and might get blown close to shore. A few North American records do show that species getting moved around by storms. Bermuda Petrel, Black-bellied Storm-Petrel, Bulwer’s Petrel (has occurred once in a storm in North America, at Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel), and albatrosses (at least one Yellow-nosed occurred on the Hudson River, New York in a storm) are all to be watched for as well!

LANDBIRDS

Past hurricanes have brought large numbers of Chimney Swifts across the Atlantic. This and other landbirds are to be watched for. Although migration was not good during the passage of the storm, the Eastern USA saw good migrations on 5 and 6 October, and those movements could have resulted in over-Atlantic migrants like Blackpoll Warbler, Bobolink, cuckoos, and others getting swept up in Joaquin‘s wind field. If so, the list of potentially interesting birds is even longer!

INLAND RARITIES

If the storm is strong enough, watch for typical coastal seabirds (including Cory’s, Manx, and Sooty Shearwaters, Northern Fulmar, and Leach’s Petrel among others) could get swept inland. Watch for these and other birds inland during or after the storm. A few notes on select species are below.

Cory’s Shearwater — In North America this is perhaps the most regular shearwater inland.

Northern Fulmar — As a northern species, it is not usually a feature in North American hurricanes. But they are susceptible to weather, and might be more common in Europe during this storm.

Leach’s Petrel — The most likely petrel (storm-petrel) inland, although storms coming up from the south could likely have Band-rumped Petrels too. As the season gets later, Leach’s becomes the more likely storm-petrel, since Wilson’s becomes quite rare by October. Some of the larger fallouts of Leach’s have been in October and November.

Wilson’s Petrel — Shockingly rare inland, with literally only a handful of confirmed records in North America (as compared to many hundreds of Leach’s and about 5-10 Band-rumped), including Cayuga Lake, near Cornell University, Lake Erie, and inland lakes in North Carolina. Records should be carefully documented, since either Leach’s or Band-rumped is much more likely, and both can be very similar, especially in the high winds and poor viewing conditions of hurricanes. Please use storm-petrel sp. if you are unsure of the species.

White-faced Storm-Petrel — One of the holy grail birds of a hurricane. It has occurred inland on Jordan Lake, NC, and the James River, VA (both Hurricane Fran 1996), as well as in Connecticut.

If you're lucky, hurricane birding could yield something as fantastic as a White-faced Storm-Petrel.

If you’re lucky, hurricane birding could yield something as fantastic as a White-faced Storm-Petrel.

American Oystercatcher — A long shot to watch for.

Shorebirds — Almost any species of shorebird can turn up inland in storms, including Red Knots, Whimbrels, and other species that aren’t often seen inland.

Parasitic, Pomarine, and Long-tailed Skuas (Jaegers) — Some may represent overland migrant birds ‘grounded’ by the storm. As always, take great care with jaeger identification.

Arctic Tern — Most Arctic Terns have already migrated south by late August, and most migrate well east of the tracks of hurricanes, so they tend not to occur often in storms. Still, it is to be watched for, especially in August and September.

Alcids — Given their rarity in southern waters during the summer, alcids do not generally occur inland or coastal in hurricanes, although easterly winds can push them to shore. Hurricane force winds in winter can cause large wrecks of alcids inland though, including Dovekie and Thick-billed Murre in particular.

HURRICANES OF THE PAST

HURRICANE BOB

One of the better recent storms for rare-bird fallout in New England was Hurricane Bob. You can see its track here: http://www.stormpulse.com/hurricane-bob-1991. It was a fast moving storm (30 mph when off the mid-Atlantic and New England) and made landfall in Rhode Island at 2pm on 19 August 1991. It cross Massachusetts east of Boston and west of Cape Cod, and was in Cumberland County, Maine, by 8pm on 19 August. Birders were mobilized as the storm passed and had the following results:

North American Birds summarizes the storm in its articles available here. A few highlights:

  • Black-capped Petrel at Wakefield, RI, 19 Aug
  • White-tailed Tropicbird found dead in Eastham, MA, 22 Aug
  • Bridled Terns in Maine (1; first for state) and Connecticut (2); Sooty Terns in Connecticut (1) and Rhode Island (2); about two dozen Sandwich and 65 Royal Terns in all three states (Rhode Island had 16 Sandwich and 38 Royal, the one Sandwich in Connecticut was a state first); and 300+ Black Skimmers in Rhode Island

HURRICANE FRAN

Hurricane Fran made landfall near the North/South Carolina border on the evening of 5 September 1996 with 10 mph winds. It dissipated from there as it headed inland, but it became known as one of the best hurricanes on record for rare birds. Ned Brinkley, Todd Hass, and Brian Patterson summarized the storm (as well as Hurricane Bertha) and what was learned of birds.

  • The most productive birding was at Kerr Reservoir in southeastern Virginia, see the list here which includes Fea’s and Herald Petrels, Sabine’s Gull, and much much more!
  • Dozens of Black-capped Petrels inland in Maryland (first confirmed record), Pennsylvania, and even on Lake Ontario!
  • Pennsylvania’s first Cory’s Shearwater at Williamsport.
  • Inland White-faced Storm-Petrels at Jordan Lake, NC, and the James River, VA!
  • American Oystercatcher north to Lake Ontario, for a fourth provincial record!
  • Many seabirds at Falls Lake and Jordan Lake, NC, including Sooty Shearwater, Leach’s Storm-Petrel, and Audubon’s Shearwater
  • Wilson’s Storm-Petrels one Jordan Lake, NC, and up on Lake Erie!
  • 50-100 Sooty Terns scattered from the Carolinas to Pennsylvania to Ft. Erie, Ontario. Some remained as late at 10 September on Lake Ontario. Others were seen coastally after the storm’s passage at Cape May, NJ, and other coastal sites.

HURRICANE IRENE

Hurricane Irene summary

HURRICANE SANDY

Partial summary from BirdCast

eBIRDING THE STORM

When seawatching, or providing data for any long stationary count, it can often be helpful to break those counts into hourly units. Since there is still much to be learned about how and where birds occur in such storms, having hourly total information would be quite helpful. Including notes on behavior and age (when known) of birds seen, especially if they seem to be species displaced by the storm. Do not ignore commoner species like gulls and terns since some of those species may have been displaced by the storm too. And, as always, please be conservative with your identifications (i.e., use tern sp., storm-petrel sp., shearwater sp., or tropicbird sp. (!) if needed) and document rarities to the best of your ability.

While displaced seabirds and other rarities are of course exciting, it is worth remembering that these storms are major disruptions to fall migration and can cause devastating mortality to birds. Even observations of typical landbirds before and after a hurricane have value, so please do get out birding even if you aren’t in a spot likely to get rare storm birds.

As a nice note of hope, note that this satellite-tagged Whimbrel survived a migration right through the storm!

Be safe, and good luck!

REFERENCES

Check out these hurricane submissions from eBirders!

This is one of the seminal articles on hurricanes, discussing the active and exciting season of 1996.

BRINKLEY, E. S., T. HASS, AND J. LOCKYER. 1997. The storms of 96, Part 1: the storms and their associated birds. Audubon Society Field Notes 51: 819–829.

See also:

Hurricane Bob — seasonal report from American Birds available here.

Global Big Day — 9 May 2015

How many birds can be seen in a single day around the world? That’s the idea behind the Global Big Day effort being coordinated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. For more than 30 years, Cornell’s Team Sapsucker has been doing Big Days (Bird Races) to raise money for conservation (and support eBird). We’ve had some great times, from our awesome 294 species run in Texas to last year’s El Gigante that combined Arizona and California for 275 species. We had a great time at the Champions of the Flyway event last year in Israel. Other impressive totals we prefer to forget (Andrew Farnsworth is leading Marshall Iliff 2 to 1 for most flat tires [err, tyres] while driving on the Lab Big Days).

Global-Big-Day_map-logos_625

But what’s next? With the Cornell Lab’s centennial in 2015, we decided to make some big changes to the Big Day—most importantly to expand the team drastically. There are few things we enjoy more than going out and seeing how many birds we can see—and we want to share that fun with the world. For 2015 we invite everyone around to join us in an attempt to see as many species as possible on a single calendar day. Are 3000 species possible? 4000? More? Could we document half the species in the world? We have absolutely no idea—but that’s what makes it fun! For birds to count, all you need to do is enter them into eBird. Mark your calendars for 9 May 2015 for the first ever Global Big Day on International Migratory Bird Day and start spreading the word in your area.

This year is a little different from past Big Days because we are interested in the cumulative total from around the world. This means, if you are in Brazil there are 253 species that can’t be found anywhere else. India 57; Australia 347; Puerto Rico 16; Hawaii 33; California 2. Who wants to be responsible for Scottish Crossbill?

Golden-collared-Manakin_270Our hope is that miniature competitions will develop. Who will record more species, the United Kingdom or Portugal? New York or Massachusetts? Colombia or Ecuador? The main differences between this and other bird races, is that we are interested in the number of species we can see by working together—after all, that is the idea behind eBird.

We will be using the hashtag #GlobalBigDay and hope you will use it in discussing this on social media. We recognize that this is not the ideal date for birding all around the world, but we needed to start somewhere. Please let us know if you have any questions. We will be sending more information in the coming weeks.

To find out more head over to: http://ebird.org/globalbigday/

We realize that people may use other bird recording systems (e.g., Birdtrack), but our hope is that on this one day we can envision a world where all birders worldwide can bring their data together for a truly global snapshot. We continue to strategize with BTO and other groups around the world on how to fund and develop an integrated global system.

If you are new to eBird, take a look at our Quick Start Guide to get started.

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

Ahh, if only it were so simple! In eBird we have options to display common names in a variety of ways. If you like, you can go with the Yank version of Black-bellied Plover, but we expect many will prefer Grey Plover. eBird has eight English versions of Common Names including English (United Kingdom) (EN_UK) and English (IOC) (EN_IOC) which can be changed from eBird Preferences once you have an account. If you want more details on taxonomy and how this works, see this article.

And feel free to contact us if you have any questions.

Thanks,

Chris, Marshall, Brian, Tim, Jessie, Andrew, Ian and the entire eBird and Cornell Lab crew. Thanks also to Cornell student, Luke Seitz for the amazing Big Day art, which you can download here.

Bermuda Phylloscopus — final chapter?

Thanks to some persistence from Wendy Frith, who finally got some audio recordings, it appears that the identification of the Phylloscopus warbler on Bermuda has been nailed down: Arctic Warbler. Andrew Dobson has photos and audio links in his eBird checklist, which also gives a nice sense of the other birds at the site. Obviously some defended this identification at the outset. With the benefit of hindsight, please do add your comments to how this might have been identified if the audio recordings had not been obtained.

For those that use eBird for record keeping worldwide, please note how photos, audio recordings, and field notes can be combined on a checklist like this, which also contributes to your personal record keeping and global database. For example, here is the ever growing range map for Arctic Warbler. Your additional records will help to make this map (and others) even more complete.

This is a new record for Bermuda and the first record for Arctic Warbler on the North American side of the Atlantic Basin. If anything, this record has been instructive (for us North Americans anyway!) as to just how difficult some Phylloscopus can be and just how important the calls are to confirming the identification. Congratulations to our Bermuda colleagues who stuck with this one and finally nailed it!

Here is one of Andrew’s more recent photos, but do be sure to check out the full set.

Bermuda Arctic Warbler

Bermuda Phylloscopus — additional images

Andrew Dobson provided this more extensive set of images from his original observation of the Bermuda Phyllscopus. He reports that no one has yet heard it vocalize, but they will keep trying. Hopefully the bird will be around for a while longer and complete its molt!

In the meantime, here are more photos to discuss:

DSC_9705 DSC_9681 DSC_9704 DSC_9695 DSC_9690 DSC_9682 DSC_9680 DSC_9678

Bermuda Phylloscopus — ID help needed!

Bermuda is one of the planet’s best vagrant traps, a completely isolated North Atlantic island about 1045 kilometers ESE of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The island’s relatively small size (53 square kilometers) and the absence of other nearby islands surely adds to its power as a vagrant trap. A good system of roads and limited fresh water make the best spots fairly straightforward to check, and a year-round cadre of keen birders are consistently turning up new surprises. That said, few North Americans visit specifically to seek vagrants, largely because it is not included in the ABA Area, which for many in the U.S. and Canada is still the most important listing region. With 361+ species and counting, it certainly deserves more coverage…

The Phylloscopus in the below photos was found by Wendy Frith and David Wingate in the Port Royal/Pompano dump area of Bermuda on 18 February 2014. Andrew Dobson returned the following morning and got these photos. To our knowledge, the calls have not yet been heard or audio recorded. Opinions on the identification have been divided thus far, so we invite Frontiers readers to help nail this one down.

Bermuda Phyllosc-DSC_9675 Bermuda Phyllosc-DSC_9696 Bermuda Phyllosc-DSC_9697 Bermuda Phyllosc-DSC_9691 Bermuda Phyllosc-DSC_9707

 

Phylloscopus in North America

Within North America, Arctic Warbler (Phylloscopus borealis kennicotti) breeds in mainland Alaska, and is a common migrant on some Bering Sea islands, such as St. Lawrence Island. All other species are vagrants. Alaska has vagrant records (almost entirely in fall) of Pallas’s Warbler (1), Yellow-browed Warbler (8+), Willow Warbler (11+), ‘Siberian’ Chiffchaff (2-3 records), Wood Warbler (3), Dusky Warbler (20+)–almost all from the western Aleutians, St. Lawrence Island (Gambell), or St. Paul Island (one of the Pribilof Islands). and Arctic Warbler, which breeds. The status of Kamchatka Leaf-Warbler (Phyllscopus examinandus)–not yet split by the American Ornithologists’ Union but clearly deserving of a split since Alstrom et al. (2011)–is not well known but is summarized to the best of current understanding by Howell, Lewington, and Russell (2014). It is at least a rare to casual spring migrant and very rare fall vagrant on the western Aleutians.

Away from Alaska, California has 7 fall records of Arctic Warbler (although some or all of those may refer to Kamchatka Leaf-Warbler) and an impressive 13 Dusky Warbler records, all from fall. Mexico actually has more Phylloscopus species than California, with two records of Dusky Warbler, one of Arctic (or Kamchatka Leaf-Warbler), and one record of Yellow-browed Warbler, all from the Baja California Peninsula. Otherwise, there is but a single sight record of Yellow-browed Warbler from the mid-continent, in Wisconsin. Greenland, a waypoint between Iceland and North America, has one record of Willow Warbler, from Hold With Hope, Myggbukta, 18 Sep 1937 (Boertmann 1994).

Obviously, a record of any Phylloscopus from Bermuda is a highly significant record and a first record for the island. Although a variety of Palearctic shorebirds, herons, waterfowl, and even raptors have appeared here, Palearctic passerine records have been very few. One of the more remarkable was a Dark-sided Flycatcher (Muscicapa sibirica) collected 28 September 1980
(Wingate 1983).

Please comment on the ID

With all that in mind, opinions on the identification of this Phylloscopus would be most welcome. Opinions thus far have been divided, so we could use some help from Palearctic birders who have a much better handle on this genus. The Frontiers audience is certainly better suited to comment than almost any other community in the world, so please give us your thoughts, along with supportive field marks that you see in these photos.

 

Barrow's Goldeneye

Can half the birds on earth be found in a weekend?


What if every birdwatcher in the world submitted their bird observations from a single weekend into a single, centralized database? How many of the world’s birds can be recorded on a single weekend in February? This weekend, birders from around the world are using eBird to run this experiment worldwide for the second global Great Backyard Bird Count. Last year 41% of the world’s birds were detected; this year we’d like to shoot for 50%. But to succeed, we’ll need the readers of Birding Frontiers to help out, both by entering data and by spreading the word about the count.

Team eBird

If you have never tried eBird before, there has never been a better time to get involved. Take part in this global initiative to see how many birds can be recorded in a single weekend.

Great Gray OwleBird allows any birder worldwide to submit data to a centralized database and to view these data on a variety of eBird data exploration tools. More importantly for the birder, the free website provides the services of the best listing and record keeping software, automatically tracking your life list, Western Palearctic list, country lists, state or province lists, county lists, year lists, patch lists, site lists and garden lists. All contributors are acknowledged in our Top100, a fun way to see who is seeing the most species and submitting the most checklists anywhere in the world. As more users join each year, the accuracy and extent of the data get better and the database gets less biased towards North America, where eBird began in 2002.

Access to eBird data is free for anyone; the entire dataset of over 165 million records—or any subset thereof—can be downloaded by birders, researchers and conservationists. This philosophy is fundamental to the project and makes eBird a powerful tool for bird recording in dozens of countries that don’t have an existing framework, database or team to organize it. Golden-browed ChlorophoniaData quality is always a concern and we work hard to make it better every day. We have a team of more than 600 of the top birders in the world who already help with this system and are always interested in welcoming new regional experts willing to lend a hand. The system works by employing date-specific regional filter to identify rare sightings and giving our reviewers easy tools to follow up on rarities (more on eBird data quality). If you’re interested in helping, let us know at: eBird@cornell.edu.

eBird has data entry apps for iPhone and Android—known as BirdLog. The European version is free and works throughout Europe. The Great Backyard Bird Count version is also free and works worldwide for the next 60 days. Global BirdLog is available for a price that directly supports these apps.

Snow Petrel

So whether you log birds from your garden or from some far-flung country with comparatively few birders, we invite you to enter a few checklists from Friday the 14th through Monday the 17th. Try to put in at least one checklist in a day. If you get out birding, try to put in site-specific lists from the places you visit during the day (rather than one list from multiple sites). Yeah, it’s a bit more work to keep specific site lists, but we think that after you explore the results in eBird, you’ll agree the effort is well worth it.

Follow the weekend progress at eBird’s Location Explorer. Just type your country, state, or county here and see what eBird has and what you can contribute.

Plains-wanderer

What are you waiting for? Enter your observations now!

Vagrant hunters on an island vagrant trap off Massachusetts checked a small marsh specifically for Purple Gallinule in October 2011 and surprised themselves by finding this one! Photo by Ryan Schein

American Purple Gallinule Vagrancy in the North Atlantic, November 2013 – February 2014


American Purple Gallinules are champions of long-distance vagrancy, with records from as far north as Iceland, as far south as South Georgia Island, as far west as the Galapagos Islands, and as far east as Italy and South Africa. This species, and many other rails, are habitat-based dispersalists, adapted to respond to ephemeral habitats and with the machinery to travel long distances. This winter has seen a big influx. What’s driving this?

Team eBird

In late fall 2013 and winter 2014 there have been a surprising number of records of this species far out of range (originally compiled by our friend Louis Bevier and subsequently amended by Teams BirdCast and eBird): 7-11 November 2013, Parque Monsanto near Lisbon, Portugal (see more here; taken in to care 11 Nov and died 13 Nov); 17 November 2013, Seal Island NWR, Maine fide Juanita Roushdy and John Drury; 8 December 2013, Clarenville, Newfoundland8 January 2014, Trenton, Maine, thanks to Michael Good; 9 January 2014, Clermont, NJ; 10 and 13 January 2014 from Bermuda; 19 January 2014, Maccallum, Newfoundland fide Bruce Mactavish; 21 January from Bermuda; 29 January 2014, Kettle Cove, Maine (apparently long-dead) fide Richard Jones via George Armistead; 30 January 2014, Iceland; and 2 February 2014, Mullett peninsula, County Mayo, Ireland. That’s 11 far-flung records of birds that were found (American Purple Gallinules are not easy to find!), with three of them crossing the Atlantic!

Two obvious questions come to mind. First, how did they make it across the Atlantic? And what were they doing moving in the first place? We offer an in-depth analysis of the effects of cold, drought, and wind and air parcels on BirdCast and a quick summary below.

Winter range

eBird distributionThe temperate zone winter range for American Purple Gallinule is primarily peninsular Florida, Mexico and Central America south to northern South America, and the Caribbean, with additional populations farther south in South America breeding during this time. The map at left shows this typical distribution from eBird observations of the species from November to February. Of note in this map are occasional winter records away from Florida in the US and frequent records of the species from central Florida south to the Florida Keys. The red balloons represent observations in the last two weeks of January 2014. EXPLORE THE EBIRD MAP HERE.

This range is by no means static, as marsh habitats with floating and emergent vegetation are often ephemeral and subject to drying out. During abnormally dry years birds may be forced to move, and this could also happen in abnormal cold years. During these movements individuals may go far afield in search of suitable habitat, a behavior that is likely echoed in numerous other species of rails. For winter 2013-2014, we contemplate the source region for this recent vagrancy event and explore hypotheses of what might be driving this year’s movement.

It ain’t the cold in North America!

Cold weather in North America appears to have very little to do with this year’s American Purple Gallinule extravaganza. The polar vortex that has received so much hype in North American media has not directly affected the primary wintering grounds for American Purple Gallinule.

Furthermore, there have been virtually no freezes, prolonged or Departure from Normal Tempisolated, in the species’s typical winter range on the Florida Peninsula. Unlike areas in the Southeast US north of Florida, only 1 day since 4 November 2013 has seen temperatures dip below 0 degrees Celsius in central Florida, with no days below freezing in the heart of their Florida range.

Drought in the Caribbean

The graphic below shows the standardized precipitation indices for the the last 1-, 3-, 6-, and 12-month periods for southeastern Mexico and Central America, the Caribbean, and north South America. Note the striking red colors that become more intense over the course of the last year in the Greater Antilles (especially the Caribbean islands of Hispaniola and Cuba), where American Purple Gallinule winters (and reside year-round) regularly.

Caribbean DeparturesThese colors represent precipitation indices 2 standard deviations below the mean for the past 30 years, indicating significant drought conditions. The potential for these conditions to spawn movements of gallinules seems very high. We believe that the vagrant gallinules probably originated here: this is an area with wintering American Purple Gallinules, the conditions are ideal to spawn a large-scale dispersal event, and as we will see, the wind currents can easily connect vagrant records back to this region.

Wind and air parcel analyses explain vagrant records

PUGA TRAJECTORY 1

Wind patterns this winter have been favourable to support movements of gallinules over the ocean to Iceland and Ireland.  There is a strong Caribbean connection as well, with high altitude winds linking an air parcel beginning on Hispaniola with the North Atlantic. Similar conditions existed on 22 January to support movements of gallinules over the ocean to Iceland and Ireland. Several other maps of air parcels are included in the full BirdCast feature.

Water-cooler Fodder

Although this winter’s cold temperatures could yield far-flung American Purple Gallinules, evidence this year is stronger for drought driving dispersal from the Caribbean and south Florida. The same systems that have brought extreme cold to the eastern U.S. are also bringing these strong wind fields as the storms spin up the east coast, and this surely has aided the successful trans-Atlantic flights by these gallinules. South America does not seem a likely source, given the prevailing flow of winds in potential source areas for gallinules on that continent. But the origin, motivation, and mechanism of movements are open questions and discussions worth continuing, as we have barely scratched the surface of these patterns. For example, conditions are generally favorable this winter for Nearctic and Neotropical vagrants to reach the Palearctic, with general flow of winds to the east across the Atlantic in the presence of an Azores High, a pattern referred to as positive North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). (As an aside, these conditions and the prevailing trade winds also make for favorable conditions to deposit Palearctic migrants in the Neotropics, a topic we will discuss further in an upcoming BirdCast post.) NAO phases are cyclic, albeit irregular in their timing and strength. Previous years with strongly positive NAO may well correlate with other instances of North Atlantic vagrancy in this species: if anyone looks into that we’d love to hear back! That would help to answer the question of whether this year is different, whether something fundamental changed, or if American Purple Gallinules this year just encountered a perfect combination of drought conditions, positive NAO, and a wobbly polar vortex that is sending numerous strong low pressure systems up the Atlantic Coast. Check out the Full BirdCast Feature.

–AF, MJI, CLW; Team eBird & Team BirdCast