By Anya Auerbach
On August 28, 2011, I didn’t bother setting an alarm. I had never been in a tropical storm before and figured my parents wouldn’t let me outside until all the exciting birds were long gone. Waking up around 10:00am, I looked out at the disappointing sight of a rainy, windy day. “I’m not going anywhere in that,” I thought. Around 1:00pm I checked the New York Birding List and was astonished. Jacob Drucker was seeing storm-petrels on the Hudson! Birding does strange things to you, and one of these strange things was to plant the idea in my head (as well as the head of every other birder on the east coast) that maybe it was a great idea to go stand by the ocean for hours on end during a hurricane. The rain had let up by then, and it wasn’t even very windy, so my dad and I (he’s not a birder) went for a walk by the river and I just happened to spend my whole time staring out at the water with my binoculars. The river was filled with debris and all our common summer gulls: Herring, Ring-billed, Laughing, and Great Black-backed; nothing I couldn’t see from the school bus every day. Then my dad said he wanted to head home. Well, I didn’t! I was on a quest to find birds, and I wasn’t giving up. But I didn’t have my cell phone with me, which meant I had to tell my dad when I’d be home. “I’ll be back by 3:00m,” I promised. I couldn’t imagine that I would have any reason to stay longer. I headed downtown, until at the 70th street pier I finally found something: other birders. Peter Post, Dale Dancis, Ardith Bondi, and Matthew Rymkiewicz were already there, and they, too, had seen Wilson’s Storm-petrels.
Lots of birds were flying down the river, having been pushed inland by the storm. We saw distant shorebirds on the Jersey side of the river and a flock of Bank Swallows, which are uncommon in Manhattan. We still hadn’t spotted any pelagic species, though. I scanned the river yet again and spotted a distant something fluttering low over the water, way up river. “Storm-petrel” I called out excitedly! But I had lost it. Everyone was scanning that section of the river by then, and then Peter spotted a tern- no, several terns. “Dark terns!” In a moment we all were on them, three dark-and-white birds, bigger than Common Terns, flying rapidly down the river. For that moment we were all silent, observing the birds, trying to pick out those details that would tell us whether they were Sooty or Bridled. I haven’t had much experience with either one, having never been to Florida, nor on a pelagic trip out of Cape Hatteras. I was, though, the only one there with a camera (when’s the last time that happened?) so I snapped as many pictures as possible. The front two birds were definitely Sooty Terns, we decided, relatively large and dark, with an eyebrow stripe ending at or just before the eye and a mostly blackish tail. The third bird was troubling, though. It had seemed smaller and lighter than the others, like a Bridled Tern would be, but we just weren’t sure. I had to leave to be home on time, but I promised to send the pictures to Dale and Peter.
The next day Peter responded: the third bird was a Bridled Tern! Blowing up the pictures, it had a medium grey back, flecked with white, and an almost all-white head. Our bird was a juvenile or first summer bird, or if you prefer, in juvenal or first alternate plumage. He had other news too- he, Dale, Ardith, and Matthew had spotted a White-tailed Tropicbird just an hour after I left! I won’t quote exactly what I said when I heard this news. Of course I was elated to have seen the birds I did that day. But everyone, especially people on Long Island, had had better sightings- South Polar Skuas, jaegers, 11 tern species in a day, several more tropicbirds, Brown Pelicans, and more. People on the East River had all three jaeger species. But that’s part of birding: you miss things. If we didn’t, what would be the point?
More important than two birds for my ABA list were the identification skills I gained. I know that the next time I see a young Bridled Tern, I will recognize it. Even more important than that is the appreciation I now have of what a hurricane means to these birds. The ones we saw were lucky: they were swept inland, but had the strength to keep going and make it back to the ocean. But for many other individuals this was not the case. Even a week later, reports of dead terns and even a dead tropicbird were still coming in. Those were the unlucky ones, the birds who died from exhaustion or some other cause we may never know. I think it is important to remember the dark side to every storm-induced birding day, whether Sooty Terns or a warbler fallout. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with appreciating those birds that do survive. That day has been called one of the best birding days the New York City area has ever seen. I would have to agree.
When’s the next hurricane?
About the author: Anya Auerbach is a 14-year-old New Yorker. She doesn’t know when she started looking at birds, but she started birding two years ago. She has attended three young birder camps, and is already signed up for one next year. Anya especially likes Procellariiformes, and her first pelagic trip, out of Lewes, Deleware, was a highlight of her summer. She hopes to be a biologist when she grows up.