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The visitors that Hurricane Lee could bring

American Flamingo
American Flamingo

It’s hurricane season, which means a lot of confusing conversations where it sounds like you’re talking about an unwanted visit from a relative. “So do you think Lee will come to the Cape? I hope not. I can’t deal with Lee right now.” But birders are all secretly hoping Lee comes, and that Lee is bringing lots of gifts in the form of rare, storm-blown birds. Lest you label us masochists for wishing such weather upon our friends and neighbors, these storms generally weaken to less damaging tropical storms by the time they get here, giving us the birds without the devastation.

Past hurricanes have deposited all manner of confused seabirds in strange places around the state. If the storm tracks inland, birders head to Wachusett Reservoir and lakes in Berkshire County in addition to coastal promontories. Storms that spend time over the warm Gulf Stream waters offer the best chance for tropical seabird sightings, but that’s not always the case - Hurricane Isais tracked straight up the coast in 2020 before heading up through the middle of Massachusetts, depositing species like Sooty Terns from the Caribbean and White-tailed Tropicbirds from Bermuda on the Quabbin Reservoir near Amherst, plus scattered other Sooty Terns at Cape and South Coast.

Hurricane Idalia recently made news by depositing flamingoes, which it picked up from Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, all over Florida, but also as far as Ohio and central Pennsylvania. Imagine being the birder checking the farm pond in rural Pennsylvania to see not one but two bright pink flamingos wading around. Hurricane Sandy may have been the oddest, depositing a mix of out-of-range European birds, in the form of Northern Lapwings, as well as arctic and Caribbean birds, often to the same places.

But what do these hurricanes mean for our local migratory birds? For those trying to get south over the Atlantic, they are a potential death trap. Uncountable songbirds and small shorebirds are dispatched by hurricanes as they attempt to fly south well out over the Atlantic. Bigger birds and those that can land on water can fight the winds and survive.

Tracking birds with GPS devices has shed some light on how some birds interact with these potentially deadly storms. Whimbrels are big sandpipers most common around here in Wellfleet and Chatham in late summer, when they stop on their way between Arctic Canada and South America. One Whimbrel named Hope, who was indeed a thing with feathers, flew straight into a tropical storm off Nova Scotia, fighting wicked headwinds for 27 straight hours while flying just 9 miles per hour. As she exited the back of the storm, strong tail winds sent her rocketing south at 90 miles per hour, eventually bringing her here to Cape Cod to refuel on a Whimbrels favorite food, fiddler crabs.

What might Lee bring us? On Thursday the winds will be favorable for birds to head south from Canada. Any that end up over the water will eventually hit Lee and likely turn back to look for land, hopefully ending up here on the beckoning, “bared and bended” arm of the Cape. With the east side of the hurricane likely well offshore, I don’t expect we’ll get many tropical birds from Lee, maybe a Brown Pelican or two, but things could change. But the predicted strong northeast winds are the kind that should load up Cape Cod Bay with uncommon offshore birds from the Gulf of Maine, things like phalaropes, jaegers, and maybe a skua, so you can bet birders will be stationed at First Encounter and Sandy Neck beaches this weekend.

Whatever Lee brings, you’ll hear about it here next week. In the meantime, you might want to go trailer park style, and get some plastic flamingos out on the lawn to draw any stray ones in, just in case.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.