NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

November 3, 2012

Hurricane Sandy blew many birds off course

WORDS ON BIRDS Steve Grinley
Newburyport Daily News

---- — Thousands of homes in Massachusetts had their power knocked out this week by Hurricane Sandy, with the utilities promising to restore everyone by this weekend. That’s not the case for the tens of thousands in New York and New Jersey, who took the brunt of the storm. Our thoughts are with those people who have lost so much and we are certainly thankful that we were spared such devastation.

People ask me what happens to the birds during such violent storms. No doubt the birds take a toll as well, especially those close to the devastated areas. Birds seek shelter, much like humans do, and though some successfully find refuge in tree cavities, dense evergreens and man-made structures, including bird houses and roosting boxes, many don’t survive the worst of storms. For migrating birds, those that do survive sometimes get blown off course. Water birds, and seabirds especially, often show up out of their ocean environment. Such was the case with this past week’s storm.

A Salisbury Beach resident came into the store on Tuesday, the day after the storm, with photographs of a bird that was “trapped” in the stairwell to his cellar. The small, black-and-white bird had very short wings and wasn’t able to fly out.

It was a dovekie, a member of the alcid family of birds, which includes puffins. I called local wildlife rehabilitator David Taylor, who went to Salisbury to rescue the bird. He reported that the bird was fine, but the waters of Salisbury were too rough to release it there. Instead, he took the bird to Plum Island, where the ocean waters were calmer and successfully released it there.

A short time later, David stopped by the store with another bird in hand. He wasn’t sure of its identification. It was a Leach’s Storm Petrel, a bird of the open ocean. Usually we have to go out on a pelagic trip miles offshore to see these birds. A few had been spotted from land during the storm, the strong easterly winds pushing them closer the coast of New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

This Storm Petrel was pushed all the way to downtown Newburyport, where David retrieved it from Interlocks Salon and Day Spa. When I posted its appearance on the Massbird list serve, a fellow birder commented that it must have stopped for a massage after fighting the winds of Sandy. Come to think of it, the bird did look well groomed.

That same evening, I received an email form Magill Weber, a visiting birder from Arizona, who had spent the afternoon sea watching from Salisbury Beach State Reservation. He reported, “There has been a huge movement of scoters out of the Merrimack River. Highlight was a puffin flying past about 20 yards off the seawall. Tons of Red-throated Loons coming up out of the river, tons of Northern Gannets.”

So, not only had “tons” of gannets, loons and scoters collected in Newburyport harbor during the storm, so did an Atlantic Puffin, the cousin of that dovekie. Sandy’s strong easterly winds drove these birds into Newburyport harbor where they were able to find less-trying conditions. The harbor afforded them the same protection of the breakwaters and the barrier beach that all Newburyport residents appreciate in a nor’easter. As the winds subsided on Tuesday, they were able to return to the open sea.

The local birds came back to the feeders on Tuesday and are feeding more ravenously that ever. The storm may have blown away much of the little natural food supply that they had before the storm. The feeders need to be refilled almost every day, and as the temperatures continue to drop over the next week, the birds will continue to seek the seed and suet that we provide in order to survive the season ahead and whatever storms it brings.

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Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift in Newburyport.