Friday, October 26, 2012

Sandy bringing rare waterbirds?

By now it seems everyone from Florida to Maine is well aware of Hurricane Sandy. The system and its potential could make for a historic storm at a very late date. There has never been a hurricane making landfall north of the Carolina border in October, and the intensity of the system may surpass nearly anything seen this late in the season before. Nevertheless, after a flurry of incredibly unfathomable and nearly impossible model runs, the stage seems to be a set for a bad but not as nightmarish outcome probably more focused on regions to the south of Connecticut. This is the 11AM update of the projected track by the National Hurricane Center for October 26.

Much has yet to be determined about timing, track, intensity of wind speed, pressure, angle of attack, rainfall amounts, and so forth. The devil, as always, is in the details, but Connecticut is going to be impacted by Sandy in several ways pertaining to coastal waterbirds and their habitat. We all know tropical cyclones can literally reshape the coastline, and in some cases this helps birds with additional habitat created for Least Terns on enlarged sandy beaches. Irene did this in several key areas just last year. Any tropical-storm level winds sustained over a prolonged period will once again damage and destroy woody vegetation in near-coastal areas and on offshore islands.

This brings me to the birds of the storm - take a look at the graphic above and imagine Sandy centered on those dots in the track. Then divide her into four parts like a pie. Connecticut will get the right-front quadrant, the area of strongest winds, with the precipitation focused mostly to our west. This is also somewhat similar to Irene though further to our southwest (Irene made landfall near New York City). Still, this could be a stronger and larger system.

So what is important about the right-front quadrant? It is also where most of the very rare birds from the tropics and southern U.S. coast will be, and where more are going to be pushed in from the Atlantic directly onto Connecticut. Once again, think of Sandy centered on those dots, moving onshore in New Jersey or around Delmarva, and imagine her spinning in a counter-clockwise circle. Areas of low pressure spin in this direction in our hemisphere (and areas of high pressure spin clockwise). The winds would be coming right off of the water, and with an expansive wind field projected, thousands of seabirds and waterbirds picked up from other areas will be pushed here, seeing parts of New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Masschusetts as the first piece of land they have seen in hours. Exhausted and lost, they will navigate to the land to use it as a place to rest, feed, or follow as they head back home. Some birds, like Sooty Terns, can be seen during the worst of the storm and quickly exit south as soon as conditions even begin to abate a little. Others, like shorebirds and waders, may be displaced for days as they remain in the area.

There is much more to come on Sandy but, if it comes in to our south in the manner depicted above from Delmarva to New York City, we stand a good chance of seeing some incredibly rare birds as we did during and after Irene. Please remember your own safety first during and after the storm, and keep your mind open to anything and binoculars ready! We would love to hear about any strange waterbird sightings as soon as you see them. Until then we can hope that the storm will dissipate as much as possible and end up much weaker than forecast for the benefit of everyone.

Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Audubon Society partnering to improve conditions for coastal waterbirds in Connecticut.

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