Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hurricane Sandy's become the perfect storm for Ohio birders

Thanks to Hurricane Sandy birders are flocking to the south shore of Lake Erie, with their binoculars particularly focused on the mouth of the Grand River.

Count Jim McCormac as one such dedicated warbler-watcher.

McCormac is taking a vacation day today as a result of Hurricane Sandy. And the avian education specialist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife could not be more happy.

As a dedicated birder, McCormac wants to see what strange, exotic and uncommon bird species that Sandy has blown into the state.

Added to these favorable weather events is the fact that many bird species are migrating now.

In effect, Hurricane Sandy has become the perfect storm for birders.

McCormac said he intends to begin his birding at Wellington and Oberlin reservoirs, both upground reservoirs located just south of Lake Erie and near Lorain.

“I want to start there because they are quiet refuges away from the lake where birds can rest but not so far away, either,” McCormac said. “They have a good track record of attracting birds.”

Already multiple sightings of Atlantic brants are being reported, an unusual visitor to Ohio, McCormac says.

“In a good year there may be reports of 20 to 50 brant but I’ve heard of reports of as many as 500,” McCormac said. “That’s incredible.”

McCormac says as well that Headlands Beach State Park and Headland Dunes State Nature Preserve are both excellent viewing areas.

“Fairport Harbor is a great places to look for stuff in bad weather,” McCormac said.

Other bird species that are showing up in large numbers include white wing scoters, surf scoters, black scoters.

All of these species are not unprecedented but the numbers are impressive, McCormac says.

“The big thing about a storm like Sandy which formed in the Atlantic is the seabirds and shorebirds that can be carried by the winds here,” McCormac says.

What would get birders’ hearts all aflutter, also says McCormac, are so-called “pelagic” bird species.

“Those are maritime birds you find on the ocean like puffins,” McCormac said. “And they are the ones that can get blown into the Great Lakes region after a storm like Sandy.”

Once these birds become oriented some will work their way back to ocean, McCormac says.

“But some may not, and they include the puffins, thick-billed murres, and the northern gannet, which are really, really neat because they are so huge,” McCormac said.

However, McCormac doesn’t expect to see any pink flamingos, unless they are the plastic variety rooted in yards.

“No, none of those,” McCormac said, “though we still might see a few Southern bird species like the sooty tern, a coastal bird that tends to be blown north during hurricanes.”

Another area birder burning up vacation time to see what Hurricane Sandy has shuttled to Northeast Ohio is John Poganick, Lake Metroparks’ biologist.

“I’ve been watching the lake everyday since Saturday and it’s been incredible; including seeing 1,500 scoters go by,” Poganick said. “I’ve never seen that many waterfowl on the lake as I did that day.”

Poganick said among the most uncommon and rare bird species that he’s seen are three common eider, seen at his Perry Township home overlooking Lake Erie.

“Which is very rare in Ohio; so much so there’s been fewer than five on record,” Poganick said.

While Poganick said he’d like to take another day off to go birding on Wednesday, chances are he’ll be dragged back into the office.

“You just don’t see these extreme winds too often,” Poganick said

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn
Twitter: @Fieldkorn.

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