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In This Place

The Storm That Wasn't

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Mark Faherty
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Magnificent Frigatebird

This past Saturday, the birders of the northeast were like kids on Christmas Eve. Hurricane Henri was en route, and birders that usually spoke of feathers and flight styles were talking isobars and the relative merits of European versus North American forecast models. This could be it — the perfect storm, maybe even better than Irene back in August of 2011. That storm brought rare tropical and subtropical seabirds like White-tailed Tropicbirds, Band-rumped Storm-Petrels, and Sooty and Bridled Terns to New England. Some of those storm-blown waifs ended up far inland on big freshwater lakes and reservoirs. Henri, based on the predicted track and reports of tropical birds in the water south of New England, could be even better.

Never had the birding community been more prepared for a storm — there was a chat on the GroupMe app to discuss strategy that included over 200 birders from New York to Vermont, plus some on ships offshore. Bold predictions were made of rare seabirds that would be blown inland, some of those predicted would be unprecedented. There was a shared Google doc with strategies, maps, and resources, plus ample safety reminders - this wasn’t every day birding. High winds and potentially dangerous storm surges superimposed on the already high full moon tides were a real risk for anyone at the immediate coast or driving around.

Sunday came, the storm track was finally clear, and birders were sharing the conditions at their respective watch points. At least one birding team in Rhode Island knew they were in for some bad weather when they saw Jim Cantore from the Weather Channel show up. Many were expecting big things in coastal Connecticut and especially Rhode Island, where the storm made landfall. The south coast of Mass seemed poised as well, as the east side of a hurricane often brings more displaced birds.

Some reported a few jaegers and shearwaters, lots of terns, and most promisingly, a Magnificent Frigatebird, a huge predatory seabird of tropical latitudes, turned up in Quincy, of all places. Everyone was ready and feeling optimistic. But then hours went by. The one report of Sooty Tern, a classic hurricane bird, was retracted – a misidentified Black Tern. Most of the heavy hitters were eerily silent about what they were seeing. As Sunday drew to a close, there were essentially no rare storm birds anywhere despite the best coordinated, most efficient birding effort of any storm in history. Why? Maybe birds were still entrained in the upper layers of the storm, some theorized, and therefore Monday would bring the hoped-for fallout of tropical seabirds in places like Quabbin Reservoir, the Connecticut River, and big lakes in Berkshire County.

Then Monday came and went – no inland seabirds, no displaced birds heading down rivers and back to the ocean. The perfect storm, it turned out, was a giant nothing sandwich with a side of extra nothing. What happened? The best birding minds in the northeast were scratching their heads. Maybe the storm moved too fast, or was never well developed enough to trap and transport seabirds. Maybe the lack of a well-developed eyewall allowed them to escape before it made landfall.

While it was a bust relative to expectations, it’s not like the storm brought nothing at all — two Black Witches, huge, bat-like moths that normally occur no closer than South Florida and the Texas borderlands, turned up in Plymouth. Flocks of Hudsonian Godwits, a big, rare sandpiper, were reported well inland. Large flocks of terns ended up in unusual places, and we shouldn’t forget that Magnificent Frigatebird in Boston. But overall, the birding story of Henri has been written, and in the most succinct form I can muster, it is this: birders who dreamt of rare hurricane birds were instead left in a Tropical Depression.