The eye of the storm: shorebirds can fly through hurricanes

4 10 2011

A whimbrel named Machi getting a satellite transmitter backpack. (photo by Bart Paxton)

Scientists at the Center for Conservation Biology have been satellite tagging and tracking the movements of Whimbrels, large shorebirds who undertake major migrations from breeding grounds in Alaska to wintering grounds in South America. While the researchers were primarily interested in migration patterns, they ended up learning something about the fate of birds caught in hurricanes. Conventional wisdom holds that smart birds of all species sense major storms coming, and flee the dropping air pressure for pleasanter weather. Generally, birds tend to hunker down in trees to ride out storms. It’s generally believed that birds unwise enough to be caught in tropical storms or hurricanes on the open ocean would quickly exhaust themselves flying in the high winds and perish.
The Whimbrel tracking study has shown otherwise, and while it is only a very small sample size, it does demonstrate that birds can fly straight through a major storm and survive. One of the tagged birds, nicknamed Chinquapin, flew directly into the center of Hurricane Irene as it passed over Atlantic waters with winds up to 110mph. Scientists lost the signal from Chinquapin’s tracker and feared the bird was lost. Two days later, their computers picked up the signal again, and realized the bird’s path had borne it straight into the eye of the storm and that it had emerged alive to rest up in the Bahamas.

It appears that most birds of any species that attempt this feat will fail, lacking the energy reserves to fly against such high winds. Whimbrels can double their weight as they stage for their flights south after breeding, packing on fat for their epic migrations, and scientists believe that this kind of energy reserve is necessary to even stand a chance at surviving hurricane force winds.

A second bird, Machi, survived a flight through a tropical storm only to be shot by a hunter on Guadeloupe Island. A third bird, Goshen, passed through an outer band of Hurricane Irene and was shot on the same island. Just goes to show that the life of wild birds is fraught with peril, and passage through wild winds is no guarantee of easier days ahead. And I was whining after losing power for two days in Irene’s wake.

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