Hurricane Sandy brought with her a range of birds from distant places, giving American bird watchers a chance to see species they might have never encountered otherwise.
Andrew Farnsworth of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology talks to Lisa Mullins about some of the rare species that are being spotted in and around New York.
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Lisa Mullins: I’m Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. Hurricane Sandy gave one group of people a reason to rejoice: bird watchers. That’s because as with most hurricanes, Sandy brought ashore rare birds from distant lands, species that American birders might never have the chance to see otherwise. Andrew Farnsworth, this applies to you, doesn’t it?
Andrew Farnsworth: Absolutely.
Mullins: You are a longtime birder, in fact, and you’re a research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. You are joining us from your home in New York. Who would have thought that Manhattan is a good bird watching area, but especially now. What rare birds are you seeing around there?
Farnsworth: Well, yesterday as Sandy passed, we found a number of interesting things. Leach’s Storm Petrel, it’s an oceanic species, Pomarine Jaeger, really not things that you would expect to see in Manhattan ever.
Mullins: Where do they come from?
Farnsworth: Well, Leach’s Storm Petrel is a bird that breeds across a lot of northern areas and some southern areas. It’s an oceanic species, though, so you would never expect to see one in the Hudson. They’re off the Continental Shelf usually. And Pomarine Jaeger is a high Arctic breeder that migrates off into the ocean so again, you would really never expect to see one inland, and especially not in Manhattan.
Mullins: Do they look exotic, like something you would not normally see in Manhattan, or do you just happen to be really good at identifying different birds?
Farnsworth: The Leach’s Storm Petrol does look a bit exotic, it kind of looks like a big, dark, very flappy, kind of bat when it flies around, and looks pretty unusual. The Jaeger looks a lot like typical gulls you might see, so that’s more of an ID challenge, but they’re both pretty obvious when you look at them.
Mullins: Tell us about Ross’s Gull, which is another bird that’s been spotted. It’s from the Arctic. How would something like Ross’s Gull have ended up in Manhattan? It was heading south, Sandy was traveling north.
Farnsworth: Yeah, so the Ross’s Gull actually was upstate in New York, near Ithaca. It was maybe 200 miles from Manhattan, and it’s a very interesting story because it’s very rare anywhere in North America. We think it appeared because of the strong high pressure that made all of these northeasterly winds flow across the Atlantic into Canada and probably brought that species and some other really rare shorebirds to Massachusetts, shorebirds called Northern Lapwing.
Mullins: And are there birds that have come up from the south?
Farnsworth: There are, there are. There was a report of a Red-billed Tropic bird, a Caribbean species, that was found alive on the ground in Cape May, New Jersey. It was brought in to a rehabilitator’s. That’s certainly one of the farthest afield records that we’ve heard of.
Mullins: And pushed up by Sandy?
Farnsworth: That’s right.
Mullins: So that’s a good thing for you and for other birdwatchers. Is it a bad thing for the birds to be steered off course so much?
Farnsworth: A lot of the birds that get steered off course in hurricanes, if they can’t fly back to the ocean, they may die where they end up. For something like Ross’s Gull, though, even though it’s so far afield, it could easily survive, it could move on to another destination, it’s hard to say for those. But the hurricane birds, they have a really tough time often, once they get far inland and are far out of habitat and far out of range. A lot do return to the ocean, but the birds that are exhausted end up on lakes, or ball fields or river valleys, and are exhausted enough so that they’re really not able to make the flight back.
Mullins: Do storms generally kill a lot of birds?
Farnsworth: A storm like this probably didn’t kill a lot of migrant songbirds, maybe like an earlier storm might have done, by forcing them into the ocean. This probably just displaced a lot of birds. They can be really devastating but hopefully this one was not.
Mullins: Okay. Andrew Farnsworth, longtime birdwatcher and a research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Thanks again.
Farnsworth: All right. Thanks so much.
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