A Bird’s Tale

Will Hurricane Dorian Impact Maine Birds?

Tue, 09/03/2019 - 2:30pm

There is something gratifying about seeing young birds, hatched earlier in the summer, learning about the big, wide world and how to survive in it. We’ve been pleased to see quite a number of the results of successful nesting over the last month or so. On one particular day we felt blessed to spend more than an hour watching the antics of dozens of newly fledged common terns still being fed by their parents in Pemaquid Harbor. The adult terns hovered over schools of some kind of small fish close to the rocky shore, diving down and sometimes coming up with a squirming silvery prize. As soon as they did, the loud, persistent begging calls of their young would erupt, and the fledglings would chase the adult around until the food could be transferred to the hungry youngster.

We are thinking of those tern teenagers and their parents now as we hear the stories of the devastation of Hurricane Dorian on the Bahamas and its impending movement toward the coast of the U.S. That’s because common terns, like so many of Maine’s breeding birds, fly south for the winter. Satellite tagging of common terns in Maine in past years has shown that some of the birds pass near the Bahamas as they move south to their South American wintering grounds. Even in a study of a relatively small number of common terns from a Maine breeding island, a number of them encountered hurricanes along the way.

Our first thoughts related to Hurricane Dorian are of the people of the Bahamas that have endured horrifying winds, flooding, and destruction, and of those here in the U.S. that will, by the time this column appears, also be suffering through Dorian’s sledgehammer conditions.

But of course, birds and other wildlife that are in Dorian’s path are forced into their own fight for survival both during the hurricane and after it passes. We hope that any of our terns passing through on their way south have been able to skirt to the outside edges of the storm and get around it, as satellite tagging has shown some birds to do.

Birders know from experience, though, that many seabirds including terns and also petrels, storm-petrels, boobies (close relatives of the gannet), shearwaters, gulls, and others, are very often caught up in hurricanes (perhaps staying within the eye of the storm) and transported many hundreds of miles from where they started. These exhausted birds are sometimes found by birders far inland on lakes, where they attempt to find food and rest before trying to get back to the sea where they belong. Sadly, many perish.

The Bahamas are one of the most important wintering areas for piping plovers, a species that nests along our southern Maine beaches. We hope that most of them had not yet arrived in the Bahamas, but many piping plovers that nest or migrate through the beach habitats of the coast of the U.S. will have to feel the impact of Dorian. Many readers may also be aware that the Bahamas are the wintering grounds of one of the most endangered breeding songbirds of the U.S., the Kirtland’s warbler. Nesting in only a small area of northern Michigan and locally in northern Wisconsin, the entire population winters in the Bahamas. Fortunately, it seems likely that many Kirtland’s warblers may not have yet arrived in the Bahamas so that most of the population will not be impacted by the direct effects of the storm.

The Bahamas do have a number of endemic species or subspecies of birds, including the Bahama parrot and the Bahama nuthatch (a close relative of the brown-headed nuthatch). The nuthatch, which occurs only in the pine forests of Grand Bahama, was thought to be extinct until last year when a handful were discovered by researchers.

It will be months before the final assessment of the loss and injury to human life and damages to human infrastructure from Hurricane Dorian is known. It will be longer still before we understand its implications for birds and other wildlife.

We will hope and pray for the best outcomes for all.

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Vice President of Boreal Conservation for National Audubon. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of “Birder’s Conservation Handbook. His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide” from Cornell Press.