Fishin’ Hole Nature Article and Photos by Bronwyn Clear
Certified Texas Master Naturalist
This is the time of year when both migratory birds and non-migrating birds have to reckon with monster hurricanes that are raging right toward them. When the two meet, what happens to these birds?!
Birds make choices, but without the benefit of a 24-hour weather newsfeed. When a storm comes, non-migratory birds shelter in place just like we do. They hunker down and ride out the storm tucked deep into the leeward side of thick shrubs or tree trunks. They may not to be able eat for days, but if their branches and trees hold, they will survive.
Migratory birds have an overwhelming instinct to head south this time of year, but they are also highly sensitive to barometric changes and know when a major storm is coming. It has been proven that barometric lows can change the migration timing for some flocks. Some sparrow species sense this different type of ‘evacuate order’ and migrate sooner than usual. While other species prefer to migrate on the back side of a low after it has roared through. Therefore, to avoid storms some birds leave early and some leave late. What they don’t know is how bad a storm might be.
Unfortunately, hurricanes are the worst of storms, and devastating for birds. Large flocks from North America will migrate right into oncoming hurricanes. Thousands to millions don’t survive the collision. However, some stronger birds and flocks will survive the ordeal. They fly into a hurricane’s spiraling whip tails, and make their way into the calm center eye. Birds can survive in the eyes of these storms until they are pushed back over land where they will drop down to the ground and shelter in place. Or they may stay in the eye until a storm dissipates and then escape lesser winds to find places to rest. Meteorologists point out radar images that show ‘clouds’ of birds in the center of many hurricanes. Unfortunately, if the eye stays at sea too long, these birds face hunger, exhaustion, and death at sea.
Another concern for birds is how their habitat can dramatically change after storms. Big trees fall or die from salt water incursion. Nesting areas or food sources are demolished. Old environments and the birds that occupy them disappear. New growth niches arise, and it is no surprise to find that different bird species come in and take over. The same can be said when people clear forested lands. When the environments change, so do the birds.
Finally, in the aftermath of hurricanes some bird watchers search for birds and flocks that have been radically displaced. In 2011 Hurricane Irene moved white-tailed Tropicbirds all the way from the Caribbean to Vermont, a thousand miles from home! In 2005 a flock of northeastern chimney swifts were swept all the way to Western Europe when Hurricane Wilma roared through Florida! Weather is a powerful force that brings in invasive birds, insects, seeds, and animals. While you can, get out those binoculars, stay safe and look for something new!
Learn more about the incredible nature in our area by joining a chapter of the Texas Master Naturalist organization. To find a chapter close to you, or to read about the state program, go online to www.txmn.org. Volunteer and get involved!
Jim McCulloch via a Creative Commons license
Tom MacKenzie / Public domain
Russ W via a creative commons license