Weather, including its effects on birds, has long been a key point of focus for many birders. From monitoring wind speed and direction to the positioning and timing of various low pressure systems and fronts, many in our community could be thought of as amateur meteorologists. We rely on weather forecasts to inform us on how to plan each birding day during key times of the year.
There is perhaps one weather-related birding event, however, that piques birders’ interests more than any other: a hurricane. Each hurricane season (officially 1 June–30 November 30 according to the U.S. National Weather Service) birders wait with keen interest to see which storms may make landfall and what path they’ll take, with the hope that the storms bring coastal and pelagic species to inland regions where they would otherwise never be found. These species include terns (e.g., Sooty, Royal, Sandwich), frigatebirds, Brown Pelicans, Laughing Gulls, and even tubenoses.
During the last full week of August 2020, an incredibly powerful Hurricane Laura hit the United States. At one point after rapid intensification over the Gulf of Mexico the cyclone was classified as a Category 4 Hurricane with sustained winds greater than 145 m.p.h. (Livingstone and Freedman 2020). Laura made landfall near Lake Charles, Louisiana in the middle of the night on Thursday 27 Aug. The main center of circulation continued north over Arkansas before getting caught in the Westerlies, bending east over the bootheel of Missouri and then proceeded further east over southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.
Reports from south-central Louisiana on the day of landfall indicated that Laura was indeed carrying birds. Birders in Baton Rouge and Lafayette found numerous Sandwich, Royal, and Sooty terns, an immature Black Skimmer, and multiple Magnificent Frigatebirds.
As Laura headed north and then east, she weakened in intensity and dissipated over the eastern seaboard on Saturday 30 Aug. Birders across Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky mobilized during the storm’s passage on Friday and Saturday and found some impressive species.
Tennessee birders were perhaps the most fortunate, as major rarities were found at numerous sites. On Friday 28 Aug. birders at Reelfoot Lake in northwestern Tennessee found up to three Sooty Terns. Nearby, a Sooty Tern seen flying down the Mississippi on Friday morning in both Tennessee and Missouri waters. At Pickwick Lake in south-central Tennessee, birders hit gold on both Friday and Saturday. Between the two days, they found 2–3 Sooty Terns, a Royal Tern, and a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel.
Missouri’s second record of Band-rumped Storm-Petrel was found Friday afternoon on Otter Slough in the southeast part of the state. (The state’s first was “found injured beneath a farm windmill” west of St. Louis in September 1950.) (Robbins 2018). The Sooty Tern previously mentioned over the Mississippi River (and observed from Tennessee) was also a second state record for Missouri.
While it initially seemed that Indiana didn’t get any pelagic vagrants out of the storm, an exhausted Band-rumped Storm-Petrel was found on Lake Lemon (near Bloomington) on Sunday 30 Aug. The bird, which died soon after its discovery, was a second record for the state. The first was found “fluttering in a wheelbarrow” in central Indiana in June 1902 (Mumford and Keller 1984).
Days after the storm had passed, additional birds were still being found. A Magnificent Frigatebird was seen on Monday 31 Aug. over the Mississippi River near Hannibal, Missouri and Quincy, Illinois; it slowly drifted up-river never to be seen again. Another frigatebird was seen in Lake Michigan about 12 miles north of Michigan City, Indiana on 31 Aug., and likely the same bird was seen two days later from shore in Saugatuck, Michigan, 70 miles to the north. In Oklahoma, yet another displaced frigatebird was found in Tulsa on 31 August at Lake Yahola. And finally, another Frigatebird was seen flying along the north shore of Lake Ontario just east of Toronto, Ontario on 1 September.
Additional probable storm birds were evident across the Midwest, with numerous Laughing Gulls found in the storm’s path. Interestingly, efforts in Arkansas (overwhich Laura passed directly) and Kentucky failed to turn up any major vagrants. And finally, it may be worth nothing that many of the vagrants were detected south of the main area of circulation after the storm turned east.
Livingston, Ian, and Andrew Freedman. Hurricane Laura by the Numbers: Winds to 154 Mph, a 15-Foot Surge and Yet Another Category 4 on U.S. Soil. The Washington Post, 1 Sept. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2020/08/28/hurricane-laura-peak-winds-surge/.
Mumford, Russell E., and Charles E. Keller. The Birds of Indiana. Indiana University Press, 1984.
Robbins, Mark B. The Status and Distribution of Birds in Missouri. University of Kansas Libraries, 2018.
Tropical Cyclone Climatology, National Hurricane Center and Central Pacific Hurricane Center, 6 Sept. 2020, www.nhc.noaa.gov/climo/.