The names read like a rouge's
gallery. Camille, Hugo, Andrew, Danny, Opal, Georges, and the list goes
on. The memories are not fond. Well most of them aren't anyway..
Hurricane season in Lower
Alabama, and everywhere else I suppose, officially begins on June 1, and
ends on November 30. As the dog days of summer roll around the likelihood
of tropical depressions increases and depressions breed big storms. Big
storms that hit Alabama head on, or even a glancing blow, drop strange
birds in strange places and this produces extremely rare bird sightings
for the hardy (or crazy) bird lister. Birders probably do have fond
memories of chasing rare birds on the heels of a hurricane.
Birders often view these
opportunities as a birding bonanza, and they certainly will add remarkable
entries to a life, state, or local list. I hasten to add that birders
don't sit around during hurricane season wishing for a big one (not
anymore than farmers who need a rain to break a drought do) but if one
comes along, some of the birders I know go birding as soon as they can get
out of the driveway. I might have done it once or twice myself.
Opal plowed through my
hometown of Greenville, Alabama a few years ago. The old gal made a big
mess in my yard and all over town. We had no power for a week and couldn't
even get the car out of the driveway for almost three days. Opal hit
during the night and at first light I left the house on foot to go
birding. My first stop was the Walmart parking lot which is about a half
mile from my driveway.
There were gulls and terns all
over the place. After ticking off Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, and
Forster's Tern, I continued a bit further down the road and out onto
the I 65 bridge. From this point I had a good long view both north and
south and added Black Skimmer and Frigatebird to the list. This was five
new species for my Butler County list. If I had been able to get the car
out to the road I probably could have found more.
When the next big one comes
along, and it will I assure you, if you decide to chase a few Hurricane
Birds consider these tips from Harry LeGrand, a birder of some reputation
in Raleigh, North Carolina.. They know a good bit about Hurricanes over
As a hurricane develops, birds sometimes get trapped
in the eye by the towering, fierce storms in the eye wall. In effect, the
eye wall becomes a tropical bird cage until the hurricane begins to
fizzle. In September 1985, thousands of birds, presumably trapped by the
eye wall, were observed in the eye of Hurricane Gloria as the storm came
ashore in southern New England.
I have a few comments to make about chasing
hurricane birds, as I have done this on a number of occasions. I have a
quite nice inland list, including Black-capped Petrel, South Polar Skua,
Leach's Storm-Petrel, White-tailed Tropicbird, etc.
1. DO NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT HEADING TO THE
This is where the worst damage is, and you will
probably have a nearly impossible time getting onto the islands. Security
will either not let you on, or else the fallen wires and trees, will
also be a barrier. Also, these storm-blown birds will likely quickly move
back out to sea. You practically have to live at the coast, and have a
house or have relatives who have a house, to even think about being at the
coast to look for hurricane birds.
2. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DRIVE ANYWHERE BEFORE
There is the temptation to be at a lake before the
crack of dawn, if the hurricane's eye passed near the lake overnight. This
is very dangerous. Fallen trees and downed wires don't have lights, and
you can't expect DOT or utility crews to have cleared away trees before
3. DO NOT BOTHER CHASING HURRICANE BIRDS IF THE EYE
OF THE HURRICANE DOES NOT COME INLAND.
You need to remember that it is the eye of the storm
that carries birds inland, not strong winds that blow them inland. If the
eye of Bonnie passes 30 miles off the Outer Banks, and never crosses land,
winds of 100-115 miles an hour won't blow Pterodroma petrels and the like
to an inland lake. They could well blow such birds into Chesapeake Bay, as
they have in the past, but there is no history of such an event in North
Carolina, because our coast is essentially one string of land to a
seabird, and they will not be blown inland. They might take up shelter in
dunes, but they won't be found on a catfish pond in Pitt County.
4. FIND AS LARGE A LAKE AS YOU CAN NEAR THE EYE OF
THE HURRICANE, PREFERABLY EITHER IN THE TRACK OF THE EYE, OR TO THE EAST
OF THE EYE.
Birds fall out of the eye onto large bodies of
water, or even wet parking lots that look like water. Check other lakes
and ponds as well. Actually, some lakes are almost too big. It is very
frustrating to stand on the shore of Lake Norman or Lake Waccamaw and see
birds in the middle, 2-3 miles away, that can't be identified!
Nonetheless, there are generally more birds there than at smaller lakes,
and frustrating or not, you want to be at these larger bodies of water
5. TRY TO GET TO THE LAKES AS SOON AS YOU CAN AFTER
A STORM PASSES , AS HURRICANE BIRDS OFTEN DEPART QUICKLY.
If the eye passes over Jordan Lake on Thursday
morning, try to get there as soon as it is safe on Thursday morning or
afternoon. Friday will be too late, though a few birds might still be
6. REMEMBER THAT YOU MIGHT NOT BE ABLE TO GET TO
Several of us in Raleigh had Hurricane Fran pegged.
The hurricane was going to pass near Wilson, and we would head out to
Falls Lake north of Raleigh early that morning. Well, guess what? None of
us made it to Falls Lake, as the eye passed near Raleigh. I got about 5
blocks from home, and another never got out of the driveway. Needless to
say, the phone calls that came in that night about the good birds we
missed at Falls Lake were very difficult to take!
Hope these words are helpful. It is hard to sit here
and actually hope that the eye of Bonnie (or Danielle) actually crosses
into inland NC or SC, but ......
If you take leave of your senses and decide to hit
the Hurricane Bird Trail here are a few of the "must visit"
locations in South Alabama and Northwest Florida. The likelihood of
Hurricane Birds at any of these locations will depend on where the eye
All inland bays and backwaters along the Alabama
and Northwest Florida coasts and in coastal counties.
The Alabama River from Mobile to Montgomery,
especially the locks and dams at Claiborne, Millers Ferry, and in
Coffeeville Lock and
Dam and Choctaw Wildlife Refuge on the Tombigbee River.
Walter F. George Lake and Lock and Dam in
Lake Jackson and Florala State Park in Florala
Frank Jackson Lake and State Park in Opp,
Gantt Lake north of Andalusia, Alabama.
Hines Lake and Bear Bay in the Conecuh National
Hurricane Lake west of Blackman, Florida.
Lake Seminole east of Marianna, Florida.
And don't forget to check the smaller lakes and
shopping center parking lots in your neighborhood. You never can tell what
you might find!
And here's a final word for
those of you who think you might become hurricane bird chasers. When you
learn that an Alberto, Becky, or Conrad is headed your way put your
binoculars in the car and park your car close to the street. Doing this
will prevent your binoculars from being damaged when the roof of your
house caves in and your car won't be blocked in the driveway by falling
When you return from the
hunt be sure to send me your sightings so I can send all the other crazy
hurricane bird chasers a "BirdAlert".
Hmmm, if a really good blow
marches up I 65 out of Mobile I might be able to get boobies and
gannets somewhere around Bay Minette. The lake at Claude Kelly State Park
might be good for a Sooty Tern and Gantt Lake will be a good bet for a
tropicbird. Let's see, it's August the second and cloudy, guess I better
take a look at AccuWeather.com.