[UPDATE] As Hurricane Sandy barrelled up the Atlantic coast, thousands of seabirds came along for the ride.
“They actually get into the eye,” said Jeffrey Gordon, president of the American Birding Association.
Now birders like Gordon are tracking “Sandy’s bounty”— a scattered trove of tropical birds rarely seen on the eastern seaboard. Birds that are virtually never spotted inland have been pushed far from their home territories to places in and near Philadelphia.
Doug Wechsler, bird expert at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, said, “At least five species of birds that normally live out on the ocean were spotted in Pennypack Park, blown inland by Sandy.”
“It’s almost like a giraffe coming to Philadelphia or something,” said the American Birding Association’s Gordon. “These are birds that you would just never ever have a chance to see in the mid-Atlantic.”
Early Wednesday morning, Gordon and about a half-dozen local birders were gathered on a pier under the Commodore Barry Bridge in Chester, Pa.
The spot proved fantastic for tracking Leach’s Storm-petrels, Gordon said.
“It was particularly dramatic, because there’s a pair of peregrine falcons that hang out on this bridge,” said Gordon. “This is a little grim, but [the falcons] really seemed to key in on these Storm-petrels as a delicacy that they don’t normally get.”
Gordon himself is marooned in the Philadelphia area. He travelled from Colorado for a birding event on the Delmarva Peninsula and is still waiting for a flight home.
Now he’s one of many local birders on the lookout for seabirds. One even posted a photo gallery on Facebook, calling Tuesday “The best day of PA birding ever.”
“Even as excited as we get about the chance for novelty and rarity,” Gordon said, “there’s always kind of a bittersweet component to these things.” He says many of the storm-blown birds simply won’t make it.
Wechsler, of the Academy of Natural Sciences, said there have been reports of other ocean bird species being blown out toward western Pennsylvania. “The ocean birds that flew inland are good navigators and will probably find their way back to the ocean,” he said, “but God help the ones out in western PA.”
Still, the sight of vagrant, tropical seabirds flying past the flares of Marcus Hook refineries is the stuff that keeps birders like Gordon coming back for more.
“It’s just another example of one of the things we love about birding,” Gordon said. “Every time we go out, we never know what we’re going to find. And these storms give us an extra chance of encountering the weird, the strange, the wonderful.”