Birds and Hurricanes

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I recently returned from a trip to Florida, during Hurricane Michael. Luckily I was in another part of the state when the storm blew through. These days of high technology and high-speed communication, humans get warned of an oncoming weather disaster so they can take precautions or evacuate. Birds handle things a bit differently.

We have recently learned that birds can hear infrasound  and a UC Berkeley study  demonstrated that birds use infrasound to anticipate and avoid storms. Birds are also sensitive to changes in barometric pressure, so they know when a storm is approaching. In response birds may move away from the storm or just hunker down in the shelter of trees, bushes, cliffs, tree cavities, or even buildings. But some birds actually fly into the storm, flying with the wind and into the eye of the storm where it is calm. There is an interesting story about a migrating Whimbrel  that migrated around a hurricane. Speaking of migration, you might want to check out Bird Cast from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that provides bird migration forecasts in real time

Typically, birds prefer to fly in high barometric pressure because the air is thicker and easier to fly in. They will tend to fly ahead or behind of storms as they are low pressure environments. This is why you see birds perched as a storm approaches – the low pressure (thinner air) makes it harder to fly.

Of course, a number of birds die due to a hurricane’s destructive power. Some are killed by flying debris, get pushed into a tree or building, get deposited for out at sea and become lost, unable to find food, or their nestlings ejected from the nest. Then, after the hurricane has passed, the habitat might be drastically changed, with fallen trees, flooding, the ground covered in mud, and coastal dunes altered or destroyed.

From Science, referring to Hurricane Sandy in 2012: “Yet biologists studying the hurricane’s aftermath say there is remarkably little evidence that birds, or any other countable, charismatic fauna for that matter, have suffered the sort of mass casualties seen in environmental disasters like the BP oil spill of 2010, when thousands of oil-slicked seabirds washed ashore, unable to fly, feed or stay warm.

“With an oil spill, the mortality is way more direct and evident,” said Andrew Farnsworth, a scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “And though it’s possible that thousands of birds were slammed into the ocean by this storm and we’ll never know about it, my gut tells me that didn’t happen.”

To the contrary, scientists said, powerful new satellite tracking studies of birds on the wing — including one that coincided with the height of Hurricane Sandy’s fury — reveal birds as the supreme masters of extreme weather management, able to skirt deftly around gale-force winds, correct course after being blown horribly astray, or even use a hurricane as a kind of slingshot to propel themselves forward at hyperspeed.

“We must remind ourselves that 40 to 50 percent of birds are migratory, often traveling thousands of miles a year between their summer and winter grounds,” said Gary Langham, chief scientist of the National Audubon Society in Washington. “The only way they can accomplish that is to have amazing abilities that are far beyond anything we can do.”

Hurricane Sandy (2012) did not disappoint. As an enormous hybrid of winter and tropical storm fronts with a huge reach, it pulled in a far more diverse group of birds than the average hurricane, and Web sites like eBird and BirdCast were alive with thrilled reports of exceptional sightings — of the European shorebird called the northern lapwing showing up in Massachusetts; of Eastern wood-pewees that should have been in Central and South Americasuddenly appearing again in New York and Ontario; of Trinidad Petrels, which normally spend their entire lives over the open ocean off Brazil, popping up in western Pennsylvania; and of flocks of Leach’s storm-petrels and pomarine jaegers, arctic relatives of gulls, making unheard-of tours far inland and through Manhattan.”





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