Birds Blown Off Course During Migration

Canada Warbler on Ecuadorian Over- wintering Grounds; Photo Credit: Deborah Rivel

In an ironic twist, fall migration coincides with hurricane season.  While already aloft on a treacherous flight, if a hurricane crosses a migratory pathway some birds are picked up by these huge weather systems and moved to a location they never expected to be in. In the past few weeks, there have been reports of about 100 Flamingos – likely traveling from Cuba to the Yucatan – dropped off in the US by hurricane Idala, and now seen from Florida to Wisconsin. A few days ago, a dozen bird species not native to Europe including Canada and Blackburnian Warblers, were brought to the British Isles by hurricane Lee. Many of the warblers were on their way to their rich, warmer overwintering grounds, like this Canada Warbler in Ecuador (pictured above). In the case of the Flamingos, this species was extirpated in Florida in the 19th century by the ladies’ hat trade, and the protection of birds used for headgear was a primary reason the Audubon Society was started. If the Florida birds decide to stay, in an equally ironic twist, they might reestablish the species in the state from which they were hunted out.

The reality of what happens to birds who are blown off course can vary dramatically. Most birds swept up by the storms die as they cannot survive the buffeting winds and the unimaginably long and stressful flights they must make just to get to land. The handful that make it to land are exhausted and need refueling – is there food? Shelter? Can they survive the immediate temperatures? And the ultimate question….will they ever get back to the homeland they were wrenched from and the migratory pathway they know? If the bird can land on the water and find food, there is a much better chance of them making it home to another continent when they reorient themselves. Songbirds are totally out of their element and cannot cross the ocean on their own. If they try to migrate south through Europe and possibly into Africa can they even find the right food? Will they be prepared for different predators and a much different migratory route without the signposts and stopovers they are accustomed to?

There are countless stories of birds blown way off course during fall migration. It’s a phenomenon that may become more commonplace as storms become more frequent and more volatile. What the effect will be on bird populations isn’t clear. But the real winners seem to be birdwatchers who take advantage of seeing new species that are taken off their migratory pathways and deposited in another land.

Read more about the flamingos and songbirds who have wound up in new places during this hurricane season.