Hurricane Idalia Report 2023

September 7, 2023

by Amy Davis

Birders know that each hurricane season with its attendant destruction also brings the thrilling prospect of finding tropical and pelagic birds far north or well inland of their usual ranges. Terns, tropicbirds, storm-petrels, and frigatebirds are incongruously deposited into soggy farm fields or seen soaring over battered backyards. And there’s always a remote chance of something even more fantastic―say, a Yellow-nosed Albatross over the Hudson River in Westchester Co, NY (as in 1976’s Hurricane Belle). But of all the storm birds, there is none gaudier or more glorious than American Flamingo, and perhaps no more absurd place for a pair of them to show up than Ohio. Yes, the American Flamingo is a storm bird, and two likely wild individuals were a crazy first for the Buckeye State. In late Aug 2023, Hurricane Idalia churned across the Gulf of Mexico, pushing flocks and flocks of American Flamingos from the Caribbean into Florida and well beyond. Afterwards, gawky hot pink waders began appearing as if in a collective fever dream or nationwide yard flocking prank―in Virginia, Ohio, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania.

Idalia began as a tropical disturbance in the western Caribbean, spinning out over the Yucatán Peninsula before accelerating into a category 4 hurricane during its northward passage over Cuba and across the Gulf of Mexico. On 30 Aug 2023, Idalia hurtled into the Florida panhandle, then veered through Georgia and spawned tornadoes in the Carolinas before heading offshore towards Bermuda on the following day.

Figure 1. The path of Hurricane Idalia with satellite imagery from 29 Aug 2023.

American Flamingo’s present-day Caribbean range encompasses coastal fringes of the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, as well as Cuba, Hispaniola, The Bahamas, and the northern coast of South America. (An isolated population also exists in the Galápagos). Early naturalists described American Flamingos as regularly occurring in southern Florida, and the species may have nested in the Florida Keys. Prior to 1904, flamingos dispersed to southern Florida from a breeding colony on Andros Island in The Bahamas, but after the destruction of this breeding site, flamingos all but disappeared from Florida. Free-flying flamingos occasionally seen there in the following decades were thought to have come from a racetrack in Hialeah that hosted a captive flock descended from imported Cuban birds. The Hialeah flock sometimes produced unbanded, unpinioned juveniles indistinguishable from wild vagrants. In 2002, a blinged-out flamingo at Snake Bight trail in Everglades National Park turned out to have been banded at the Ría Lagartos breeding colony on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula: proof of the occurrence of a wild vagrant in the U.S. Birders began rethinking the species’s status in the Sunshine State.

While the 2002 bird at Snake Bight isn’t obviously associated with any particular storm, two keen observers of Florida bird life, Douglas McNair and Jeffery Gore, had been noticing a pattern of occurrence in which flamingos appeared post-hurricane, and in 1998, they compiled a list of cyclone-associated flamingo reports dating back to 1912. Figure 3 updates McNair and Gore’s 1998 list with more recent Gulf Coast flamingo records. The most familiar example is that of “HDNT,” an American Flamingo banded as a juvenile at the Ría Lagartos and subsequently found in Texas after Hurricane Rita in 2005. It was seen sporadically in Louisiana and Texas for years thereafter, most famously in the company of an escaped Greater Flamingo from a Kansas zoo. Among the dozens and dozens of flamingos recently documented in the southern U.S. after Idalia were a total of three wearing bands consistent with the Ría Lagartos color scheme: one in the Florida Keys, one at Everglades National Park, and one at North Carolina’s Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. One wonders whether these birds could have arrived directly from the Yucatán, given that Idalia’s counterclockwise churn produced northward winds over Cuba. Perhaps these birds had already dispersed from the Yucatán to Cuba when Idalia pushed them further north. After all, Hurricane Rita, which delivered the Ría-Lagartos-banded “HDNT” to Texas, had bypassed the Yucatán completely after passing over The Bahamas and Cuba, and Yucatán-banded birds have been reported from Cuba.

Although flamingos received well-deserved attention from even the most casual birders after Idalia, they weren’t the only storm-driven birds causing a spectacle in Florida. Sooty Terns were swept inland into Alachua, Marian, Sumter, and Osceola Cos, and a Bridled Tern was found inland on Newnans Lake in Alachua Co. Hundreds of Magnificent Frigatebirds were reported from multiple Florida hotspots on 29 and 30 Aug: the Florida Keys Hawkwatch, Curry Hammock State Park, Monroe Co; Port Charlotte, Charlotte Co; Tarpon Springs, Pinellas Co; and inland at Plant City, Hillsborough Co.

Figure 2. Post-Hurricane-Idalia ABA Area American Flamingo records (30 Aug−4 Sep 2023, with the exception of the PA record from 7 Sep). These reports have been gleaned from social media and eBird. Almost all are documented with photos or video, but none has yet been vetted by a state records committee.

Date(s)

Locale

County

State

Max # Birds

30 Aug

Newnans Lake

Alachua

FL

1

30−31 Aug

Tarpon Springs

Pinellas

FL

16

30−31 Aug

Fort Myers

Lee

FL

7

31 Aug−4 Sep

St. Marks NWR

Wakulla

FL

6

31 Aug

Palm Bay

Brevard

FL

1

31 Aug

Long Key SP

Monroe

FL

3

31 Aug

Treasure Island

Pinellas

FL

16

31 Aug

Boca Grande Fishing Pier

Charlotte

FL

5

31 Aug

Stump Pass Beach SP

Charlotte

FL

2

1 Sep

Plum Tree Island NWR

York

VA

2

1 Sep

Grassy Key/Key Vaca Cut

Monroe

FL

8*

1 Sep

Caesars Creek SP

Warren

OH

2

1−4 Sep

Cape Romaine NWR

Charleston

SC

2

1−4 Sep

Fort De Soto Park

Pinellas

FL

8

1 Sep

Marco Island

Collier

FL

14

1 Sep

Anna Maria Island

Manatee

FL

2

2−4 Sep

Pea Island NWR

Dare

NC

11*

2 Sep

Windley Key Fossil Reef

Monroe

FL

2

2−3 Sep

Iron City

Wayne

TN

5

2−4 Sep

Moundville

Hale

AL

3

2 Sep

Panama City

Bay

FL

3

2−4 Sep

Port St. Joe

Gulf

FL

1

2−4 Sep

Estero Bay Preserve SP

Lee

FL

51

2 Sep

Everglades NP

Monroe

FL

8*

3 Sep

East Beach Lagoon

Galveston

TX

5

4 Sep

Cave Run Lake

Rowan

KY

1

7 Sep

St. Thomas Twp.

Franklin

PA

2

*Flock includes one individual apparently banded at the Ría Lagartos colony in Yucatán, Mexico.

Figure 3. Historical U.S. records of American Flamingo correlating with Northern Atlantic Basin tropical cyclones. All associated cyclones passed over or very near the Yucatán Peninsula, The Bahamas, and/or Cuba (except for Barry).

Date(s) Present

Location

# Birds

Storm

15 Oct 1912

Texas coast

1

Not named

1−15 Oct 1965

Wakulla Co, FL

1

Hurricane Debbie

12 Jun 1970

Wakulla Co, FL

1

Tropical Depression Alma

19 Jun 1972

Wakulla Co, FL

1

Hurricane Agnes

12 Jun 1995

Franklin Co, FL

1

Hurricane Allison

18−23 Sep 2004

St. Johns Co, FL

1

Hurricane Frances

1 Oct 2004

Monroe Co, FL

2

Hurricane Frances

14 Oct 2005−17 Dec 2006

Calhoun and Aransas Cos, TX

1

Hurricane Rita*

28 May 2007

Cameron Co, TX

1

Hurricane Rita*

30 Sep 2007

Cameron Co, LA

1

Hurricane Rita*

2−11 May 2009

Cameron Co, LA

1

Hurricane Rita*

21 Apr−31 May 2011

Cameron Co, LA

1

Hurricane Rita*

1 Nov 2018−present

Wakulla Co, FL

1

Hurricane Michael**

13 Jul 2019

Lake Co, TN

1

Hurricane Barry**

19−21 Jul 2019

New Madrid Co, MO

1

Hurricane Barry**

16 Sep 2021

Willacy Co, TX

1

Hurricane Nicholas***

*All pertain to “HDNT,” an individual banded at the Ría Lagartos colony.

**An unbanded flamingo, dubbed “Pinky,” arrived at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge post-Hurricane Michael in 2018, and still frequents St. Marks as of this writing almost five years later. While “Pinky” was absent from St. Marks in Jul 2019, an unbanded flamingo appeared on the Mississippi River in Lake Co, TN and New Madrid Co, MO ahead of Hurricane Barry, which formed in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida Panhandle. This flamingo or another was photographed downriver in Warren Co, MS and Madison Parish, LA on 11 Oct 2019. The latter record was accepted by the Mississippi Bird Records Committee but rejected by the Louisiana Bird Records Committee for lack of evidence of wild origin. “Pinky” was not reported from St. Marks NWR 2 Jul−13 Oct 2019.

***Subsequent TX records from Cameron and Kenedy Cos in Oct and Nov 2021, respectively, may pertain to this individual.

Recommended citation: Davis, Amy. 2023. Hurricane Idalia Report 2023. North American Birds.

Sources:

Sheridan Coffey and Larry Manfredi, personal communication.

Louisiana Ornithological Society, http://www.losbird.org/lbrc/amfl.html

McNair, Douglas B. and Jeffery A. Gore. (1998). Assessment of Occurrences of Flamingos in Northwest Florida, Including a Recent Record of the Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber). Florida Field Naturalist 26(2): 40−43.

Pranty, Bill and Gianfranco D. Basili. (2007). First Record of the Greater Flamingo for Northeastern Florida. Florida Field Naturalist 35(4) 114−118.

Texas Bird Records Committee, https://www.texasbirdrecordscommittee.org/

Amy Davis is Associate Editor of North American Birds and special issues of Birding, as well as Editor of ABA’s online Field Ornithology series and Regional Compiler for NAB’s Hudson-Delaware region. She supports community science, participates in various breeding bird atlases, and serves on two state records committees. A lover of fishing and pelagic birding, Amy resides in Forked River, New Jersey.