Storm Birds

storm birds
Photos by Pat and Clay Sutton

Posted November 2009
by Clay and Pat Sutton

The storm force winds howled and rocked our old farmhouse. The wind-driven rain pelted against the windows. It seemed like a day not fit for man nor beast.

Yet we were awakened by bird song. Over the moan of the wind, a Carolina Wren sang lustily outside our bedroom window. It repeated its “Teakettle, Teakettle, Teakettle” song about six times, then went resolutely about his morning rounds.

First order of business was checking the tailings below the sunflower feeder; next on the wren’s busy agenda was going through the brush pile searching for spiders, bugs, and berries.

Few birds can brighten a dreary, stormy day quite like a Carolina Wren, one of Cape May’s top songsters. They will sing any time of day, every month of the year, and amazingly, in any weather, be it a sunny summer day, a winter snowstorm, or even a major coastal northeast storm.

The coastal storm that rocked the Jersey Coast recently was a classic “three day nor’easter.” The November 11-13 storm has already been named as one of the top five coastal storms of our time. The severe tides and 60 mile-per-hour winds caused massive beach erosion, flooding, and damage all along the New Jersey coast.

All residents and visitors had many and varied storm stories to relate, yet our birds, could they tell them, would have many of their own dramatic storm stories as well. For many birds, such as our Carolina Wren, the heavy weather simply meant business as usual. A few birds may indeed even benefit from the harsh conditions.

A high tide tour at the peak of the storm yielded some surprise sightings. Over North Wildwood Boulevard an adult Bald Eagle pounded into the gale like it was nothing, flapping hard but moving fast into the wind – even pulling away from our car as we drove. The flooded wetlands offered excellent hunting opportunities for the big predator, easy pickings such as flooded out muskrats, stranded fish, and hunkered-down Black Ducks and Brant concentrated out of the wind on the lee side of the roadway.

The Brant, flushed by the eagle, actually went backwards as they tried to fly into the wind. Hooded Mergansers beat their wings feverishly as they bucked the wind, slowly gaining ground. The Bald Eagle rode the gale masterfully, hunting as if it faced only a gentle breeze, a top predator at the top of his game, a master of his watery, windswept realm.

At 7th Street in Avalon, the site of the Avalon Seawatch, The Weather Channel’s Stephanie Abrams was doing a live storm report, and as she spoke into the rain-specked camera, one could see the Northern Gannets riding the gale behind her.

Admittedly there were only a few, way down from the thousands present before the storm, but some still fed and migrated south in the strong winds. Seabirds, from shearwaters to petrels to gannets, are designed for the high winds they often encounter at sea.

One hasn’t really seen Northern Fulmar, for example, until you have seen them perform in 70 knot winds, rocketing up and down in their distinctive dynamic soaring flight (as we once had the fortune to do during a pelagic birding trip when the boat encountered a rather scary severe squall line....).

At Cape May Point, where the land mass creates somewhat of a lee shore during northeast winds, the flock of scoters and nearly fifty Common Eider bobbed near the jetties, some feeding as they would on any tide. Long-tailed Ducks ably rode the wind and the high waves.

Many other ducks, gulls, and terns sought refuge on Bunker Pond, Lighthouse Pond and Lily Lake, any port in a storm, and as out of the wind as they could get.

These successful storm stories should not diminish the severity of the storm and its impacts upon birds. The stress on birds, and even mortality, can be severe. For marsh birds, the high tides and flooding mean they have no where to go and no where to hide. Along the causeways to the barrier islands, hundreds of Clapper Rail sought the roadsides, the only high ground. Many were no doubt picked off by Great Black-backed Gulls and other predators. Many were hit by cars, and many drown before they can gain the scarce high ground.

In several places we saw Sanderling and Dunlin standing on roads and streets, the only places to sit because the beaches and even dunes were covered with flood waters. Normally, shorebirds just sit out a high tide and wait for the next low tide, but in a three-day northeaster, the tides may not ever recede enough for shorebirds to feed.

All along the barrier islands, grassy ballfields and playgrounds were packed with Brant and shorebirds. Hundreds of Black-bellied Plover and Dunlin sat in the rain-soaked grass. Many of the plover actively fed on earthworms, but largely, like all the residents and visitors to the shore, they simply waited for the storm to end.

On the lee side of the Avalon water tower, a Peregrine watched and waited too. Each group of birds has their own reactions and strategies for dealing with the harsh realities of coastal storms. Some birds, such as the Peregrine and the eagle, do well, and some do not. But in the way of nature, that’s why there are many more Clapper Rails than Peregrines.

Coastal storms have been occurring forever on the Jersey Cape. For birds, as with people, life goes on. Within reason and with concessions to safety, birding opportunities don’t cease in bad weather, and as the above observations attest, there can be some memorable and exciting events to witness.

Birds have many storm stories too, and for them it is a way of life. It is all part of the sometimes high drama of living on land’s edge.

Clay and Pat Sutton are noted Cape May birders and the authors of Birds and Birding at Cape May.


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