Storms temporarily rearrange bird life
Following Sunday’s snow-and-wind wallop I had plenty of time for coffee and breakfast. Despite having spent the better part of Monday morning clearing my driveway and sidewalks, the street in front of my home had yet to be plowed at noon. And after having witnessed even 4-wheel-drive pickups struggle lethargically through it all, I knew I had little chance venturing out in my not-so-aggressive sedan. That left time for the back yard and the scads of birds lining up at the feeders.
Frequently I will be asked what the best bird I have ever seen is. This is always a difficult question to answer as the roster of candidates is quite large plus the criteria themselves are rather broad. Exactly what is meant by “best?” As the focus narrows to best state sighting or best county sighting it gets somewhat easier. Zoom all the way in to the best bird seen in my own yard and the answer is easy. It was several years ago but I remember it well, two horned larks.
I can see the puzzled looks, the furrowed brows, “horned lark?” Yes, horned lark. Despite the fact this species is the most numerous one in all of North Dakota during our summer months, it is a strict adherent to open habitats like fields, prairies, and airports, shunning anything resembling towns or even trees. This makes the appearance of two of them in the middle of West Fargo, in the middle of my backyard, such a stunning moment, a “best of.” More interesting, though, is what had caused their unexpected arrival. A blizzard.
A hurricane warning issued for either the Gulf or East Coast engenders a practiced response from those living in vulnerable zones: A stockpiling trip to the grocery store, a filling of the generator’s gas tank, a gathering of plywood sheets. If it’s ominous enough, some even evacuate.
A number of bird watchers will be equally interested in the path of the oncoming storm but for far different reasons. It has long been known that birds of all sorts can be blown crazy distances by major weather events and hurricanes are the celebrities of this list. Pelagic (or oceanic) species-those which are rarely, if ever, seen from land--are frequently borne inland on the backs of hurricanes. Petrels in Tennessee, frigatebirds in Ohio, tropicbirds in Kentucky, these are the stuff of dreams for landlocked birders.
I suppose it could be considered at least a brand of schadenfreude to experience giddiness while coastal residents might very well be suffering through a storm. On the other hand, one might simply call it looking for a silver lining among a set of negative circumstances. Either way, there are people known to schedule vacations around the height of hurricane season simply for the chance to find a windblown rarity in places it shouldn’t be.
Blizzards, of course, do not draw upon the same geography as hurricanes; they don’t plumb into the heat of the Gulf Stream or the millions of square miles of salty expanses. Thus, we cannot expect to have a northern fulmar appear at our feeders after a blizzard (or any time for that matter). But we can reasonably anticipate at least a jumbled mix up of the local species, a stirring of the pot if you will.
As I continue to savor an afternoon at home there is nothing exceptional to report from my feeders. The white-throated sparrow is still around but it’s been here all winter. The redpolls are still gorging on thistle seed like they have the last few weeks and the resident pair of Eurasian collared-doves are intermittently appearing.
It’s not as if the magic happens every time. Still, I’ll await these stormy snowy maelstroms, these blizzards, with an equal measure of foreboding and anxious promise. After all, one once delivered a most unlikely species into my yard. Once the driveway is clean, a person might as well make the most of it. Especially since my street still hasn’t seen a plow yet.