Thursday, September 1, 2011

Keeping an Eye on Katia and Revisiting Some Old Storms

It's been several months since I last updated this blog. I apologize to my regular readers for the lack of new content. I've gotten inordinately busy with work and life in general. But now that I'm back there are a couple of things I want to talk about.

My Newfoundland big year continues to chug along. It has been a great year for rarities and I've accumulated a list of 238 species seen to date. This currently sits just 9 species short of the Newfoundland year list record. If there are even a few gettable rarities this fall I will likely have a shot at my goal of 260. In my next post I'll do a bit of a recap of my year so far and will include photos and discussion of some of the rarities.

As well,we are in the middle of the Atlantic hurricane season. It has been the second most active season on record and promises to continue to be exciting in the next couple of months. This is not a topic I take lightly. Hurricanes cause enormous damage and disrupt bird populations. However, for birders they can be very exciting because they have the potential to displace birds over vast distances. These storms have been happening since time immemorial and will continue to occur. They will continue to displace birds. If the birds are coming anyway, we might as well enjoy them.

It has been a long time since Newfoundland has seen a hurricane borne fallout of birds. Well, that's not entirely true. In late October of 2005 the remnants of Hurricane Wilma combined with the passage of a strong low pressure system and rained Chimney Swifts, Swallows, Terns and Yellow-billed Cuckoos all over Atlantic Canada. It was perhaps the single largest displacement of hurricane driven birds ever!! Unfortunately, we blew it big time!!! Newfoundland birders failed to organize and there was no concerted effort to look for storm driven strays beyond the Avalon Peninsula. There were a bunch of good birds found on the eastern edge of the Avalon including hundred of Chimney Swifts ( rare in Newfoundland),Gull-billed Tern, Sandwich Tern and a likely Royal tern that slipped through my fingers tips before I clinch the id!

Hurricane Wilma, bird fall out Newfoundland, track analysis

A number of factors combined to make this an extraordinary event. First of all the storm formed very quickly and intensified to one of the strongest hurricanes on record. I believe it had the lowest central pressure of any hurricane ever! It formed during a time (mid October) and in an area (Gulf of Mexico)where huge numbers of birds were migrating at the time. Even though the storm fizzled out and never officially made land fall in Newfoundland it combined with an intense low pressure system that allowed it to entrain birds until they finally escaped near the coast of Atlantic Canada.

To give you an idea of the significance of the movement of Chimney Swifts. Prior to Wilma I had seen 8 Chimney Swifts in Newfoundland in 10 years. On a singe day after Wilma, I saw over 150! Anyway, enough talk of that. I've been trying to suppress the memories of how bad we ( birders) botched this storm.

So moving on. Aside from Wilma you have to go back 53 years to September of 1958, when Hurricane Helene rained storm driven strays all over Western Newfoundland.The most notable species involved in this event were Laughing Gulls ( many hundreds) and Black Skimmers ( 10's). I don't think we have any records of Black Skimmer since.

This exactly the type of hurricane we need to bring in exotic terns and seabirds. Most important is the storms track over Tern rich Cape Hatteras, the speed at which the storm was moving. Couple this with the fact that the storm managed to miss the rest of the eastern seaboard and hit Burgeo, Newfoundland directly as a H1 hurricane. It was the perfect storm for a wreck of exotic sea birds!!

Laughing Gulls in Burgeo, Newfoundland after Hurricane Helen

A photo the day after the passage on Hurricane Helene. Taken from Burgeo Sept 29th 1958. This photo was borrowed from a great paper written by legendary Newfoundland Ornithologist, Les Tuck. it can be viewed here in its entirety. (

Since 1958 we have had a few other storms that have gotten us excited, but none have produced a significant fall out of hurricane birds. When we do get direct or near direct hits from Hurricanes they are often storms that have been well out to sea for the duration of their existence, never getting close enough to the Tern rich areas from Florida to Cape Cod. These storms often form near the Cape Verde Islands in Africa, then track west, north of the Lesser Antilles. They then start to intensify into hurricanes as they enter the warmer water, but often encounter strong steering currents from low pressure systems sweeping out from the eastern US. This results in the storms re curving away from the US coast and towards Bermuda,sometimes tracking on to hit Newfoundland, but more often missing us entirely.

Its still worth birding these storms however,since they have brought us a few good birds. We have had a couple of Least Terns and a White-tailed Tropicbird that have been found after the passage of such storms. Other highly pelagic species such as Sooty and Bridled Tern may also be possible after such storms. Below are some examples of such storms from the last few years.

Hurricane Florence of 2006,classic Cape Verde storm that re curved around Bermuda and was extra-tropical when it passed off the Avalon Peninsula on September 12th. A Least Tern and a dead White-tailed Tropicbird were found after this storm.

This much anticipated late August storm failed to produce anything too exotic, but we did find a rare Least Tern at Grand Bank, Burin Peninsula and there was a noticeable influx of shorebirds into the area.

This utterly useless storm powered in to the Avalon Peninsula on the morning of September 21st. It's winds(that peaked at 173 km/hr) left a path of destruction in its wake and failed to bring a single vagrant sea bird. This is exactly the kind of storm we don't want. If we're going to get battered we should at least get a few avian rewards as compensation!

So all of the above is an incredibly long-winded way of saying I get excited about hurricanes and the exciting birding possibilities they create. All of this rambling is made more relevant by the fact that as I type this Cat 1 Hurricane Katia is spinning its way west, currently lying about 600 miles ENE of the Lesser Antilles. Like other storms and some of the examples above Katia is predicted to intensify as it passes the Caribbean and then re curve in a North Easterly direction around Bermuda towards Newfoundland.

I've been following this storm since its genesis off the west coast of Africa and as of now the various computer models are having a difficult time predicting the track that Katia will take. Its not thought that the storm will hit either the Eastern US or Bermuda, but rather pass somewhere between the two. After that its any ones guess,since predictions of hurricane tracks greater than 5 days out are wrought with error. Well known Hurricane guru Dr. Jeff Masters in his latestBLOG entry said " It is still unclear how much of a threat Katia may pose to the U.S., but it is becoming increasingly clear that Katia will pass uncomfortably close to the U.S. East Coast. The trough of low pressure currently steering Katia to the northwest will lift out early next week, and a ridge of high pressure is expected to build in, forcing Katia more to the west. This decreases the danger to Bermuda, but increases the danger to the U.S. A second trough of low pressure is expected to begin affecting Katia by the middle of next week, and will potentially re curve the storm out to sea before it hits the U.S."

If Katia should track more to the west and pass within a 100 miles or so of the eastern US then re curve towards Newfoundland (giving a track similar to Helene in 1958) we could experience some exciting birding. Storms that stay far out to sea have limited possibilities like Tropicbirds and maybe Sooty and Bridled Terns. When a storm gets close to the US coast a host of new possibilities come into play such as Brown Pelican, Sandwich Tern, Royal Tern, Forster's Tern, Least Tern and others!However, this is a big if! The extended forecast models have been flip flopping over the last few days showing Katia making landfall in Newfoundland as far west as Burgeo and currently show it passing about 100 miles east of Newfoundland.

This is the ensemble model forecast. It basically shows a bunch of possible tracks resulting from various environmental factors, then shows a track median ( the white line). Note that several of these tracks would be very favorable for bringing exotic southern strays to Newfoundland.

Shown here is the storm pulse track which currently shows the storm passing east of the Avalon Peninsula. It is way too early to make an accurate prediction about how close the storm will come to Newfoundland, or how intense it will be when/if it does make it here. Note that several of the models have the storm tracking ina slightly more westerly direction. Shift the median track 200- 300 miles miles to the east and Christmas will be coming early for Newfoundland birders around September 12th!!

So of course, all of this is nothing more than idle speculation, which is half then fun in birding. It's probably half the skill as well. Knowing what to expect, knowing what the possibilities are and where to look for them. Many times the identification is the easy part. The tough part is putting yourself in the right place at the right time and that's something you can't learn from a field guide.

I look forward to following this storm on my blog and updating everyone on my big year exploits. Sorry for the long absence, I'll try to keep the ball rolling with more regular posts this time!


  1. Hi Dave !
    Nice to hear from you again . Interesting speculations on Katia the one I´m hoping will bring some goodies up here . Irene looks to have been without any strangers at all .
    Hope you will soon break the Newfoundlands record year list .

  2. Interesting read. Thanks for the information!


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