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CHASING HURRICANE BIRDS
Compiled from various sources and edited  by Charles Kennedy

The names read like a rouge's gallery. Camille, Hugo, Andrew, Danny, Opal, Georges, and the list goes on. The memories are not fond. Well most of them aren't anyway.. 

Hurricane season in Lower Alabama, and everywhere else I suppose, officially begins on June 1, and ends on November 30. As the dog days of summer roll around the likelihood of tropical depressions increases and depressions breed big storms. Big storms that hit Alabama head on, or even a glancing blow, drop strange birds in strange places and this produces extremely rare bird sightings for the hardy (or crazy) bird lister. Birders probably do have fond memories of chasing rare birds on the heels of a hurricane.

Birders often view these opportunities as a birding bonanza, and they certainly will add remarkable entries to a life, state, or local list. I hasten to add that birders don't sit around during hurricane season wishing for a big one (not anymore than farmers who need a rain to break a drought do) but if one comes along, some of the birders I know go birding as soon as they can get out of the driveway. I might have done it once or twice myself.

Opal plowed through my hometown of Greenville, Alabama a few years ago. The old gal made a big mess in my yard and all over town. We had no power for a week and couldn't even get the car out of the driveway for almost three days. Opal hit during the night and at first light I left the house on foot to go birding. My first stop was the Walmart parking lot which is about a half mile from my driveway. 

There were gulls and terns all over the place. After ticking off Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, and Forster's Tern, I  continued a bit further down the road and out onto the I 65 bridge. From this point I had a good long view both north and south and added Black Skimmer and Frigatebird to the list. This was five new species for my Butler County list. If I had been able to get the car out to the road I probably could have found more.

When the next big one comes along, and it will I assure you, if you decide to chase a few Hurricane Birds consider these tips from Harry LeGrand, a birder of some reputation in Raleigh, North Carolina.. They know a good bit about Hurricanes over there too.


As a hurricane develops, birds sometimes get trapped in the eye by the towering, fierce storms in the eye wall. In effect, the eye wall becomes a tropical bird cage until the hurricane begins to fizzle. In September 1985, thousands of birds, presumably trapped by the eye wall, were observed in the eye of Hurricane Gloria as the storm came ashore in southern New England.

I have a few comments to make about chasing hurricane birds, as I have done this on a number of occasions. I have a quite nice inland list, including Black-capped Petrel, South Polar Skua, Leach's Storm-Petrel, White-tailed Tropicbird, etc.

1. DO NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT HEADING TO THE COAST. 

This is where the worst damage is, and you will probably have a nearly impossible time getting onto the islands. Security will either not let you on, or else the fallen wires and  trees, will also be a barrier. Also, these storm-blown birds will likely quickly move back out to sea. You practically have to live at the coast, and have a house or have relatives who have a house, to even think about being at the coast to look for hurricane birds.

2. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DRIVE ANYWHERE BEFORE LIGHT. 

There is the temptation to be at a lake before the crack of dawn, if the hurricane's eye passed near the lake overnight. This is very dangerous. Fallen trees and downed wires don't have lights, and you can't expect DOT or utility crews to have cleared away trees before light.

3. DO NOT BOTHER CHASING HURRICANE BIRDS IF THE EYE OF THE HURRICANE DOES NOT COME INLAND. 

You need to remember that it is the eye of the storm that carries birds inland, not strong winds that blow them inland. If the eye of Bonnie passes 30 miles off the Outer Banks, and never crosses land, winds of 100-115 miles an hour won't blow Pterodroma petrels and the like to an inland lake. They could well blow such birds into Chesapeake Bay, as they have in the past, but there is no history of such an event in North Carolina, because our coast is essentially one string of land to a seabird, and they will not be blown inland. They might take up shelter in dunes, but they won't be found on a catfish pond in Pitt County.

4. FIND AS LARGE A LAKE AS YOU CAN NEAR THE EYE OF THE HURRICANE, PREFERABLY EITHER IN THE TRACK OF THE EYE, OR TO THE EAST OF THE EYE. 

Birds fall out of the eye onto large bodies of water, or even wet parking lots that look like water. Check other lakes and ponds as well. Actually, some lakes are almost too big. It is very frustrating to stand on the shore of Lake Norman or Lake Waccamaw and see birds in the middle, 2-3 miles away, that can't be identified! Nonetheless, there are generally more birds there than at smaller lakes, and frustrating or not, you want to be at these larger bodies of water first. 

5. TRY TO GET TO THE LAKES AS SOON AS YOU CAN AFTER A STORM PASSES , AS HURRICANE BIRDS OFTEN DEPART QUICKLY. 

If the eye passes over Jordan Lake on Thursday morning, try to get there as soon as it is safe on Thursday morning or afternoon. Friday will be too late, though a few birds might still be present.

6. REMEMBER THAT YOU MIGHT NOT BE ABLE TO GET TO YOUR DESTINATION! 

Several of us in Raleigh had Hurricane Fran pegged. The hurricane was going to pass near Wilson, and we would head out to Falls Lake north of Raleigh early that morning. Well, guess what? None of us made it to Falls Lake, as the eye passed near Raleigh. I got about 5 blocks from home, and another never got out of the driveway. Needless to say, the phone calls that came in that night about the good birds we missed at Falls Lake were very difficult to take! 

Hope these words are helpful. It is hard to sit here and actually hope that the eye of Bonnie (or Danielle) actually crosses into inland NC or SC, but ...... 

Harry LeGrand 


If you take leave of your senses and decide to hit the Hurricane Bird Trail here are a few of the "must visit" locations in South Alabama and Northwest Florida. The likelihood of Hurricane Birds at any of these locations will depend on where the eye tracks.

  • All inland bays and backwaters along the Alabama and Northwest Florida coasts and in coastal counties.

  • The Alabama River from Mobile to Montgomery, especially the locks and dams at Claiborne, Millers Ferry, and in Lowndes County.

  • Coffeeville Lock and Dam and Choctaw Wildlife Refuge on the Tombigbee River.

  • Walter F. George Lake and Lock and Dam in Eufaula.

  • Lake Jackson and Florala State Park in Florala Alabama.

  • Frank Jackson Lake and State Park in Opp, Alabama.

  • Gantt Lake north of Andalusia, Alabama.

  • Hines Lake and Bear Bay in the Conecuh National Forest.

  • Hurricane Lake west of Blackman, Florida.

  • Lake Seminole east of Marianna, Florida.

And don't forget to check the smaller lakes and shopping center parking lots in your neighborhood. You never can tell what you might find!

And here's a final word for those of you who think you might become hurricane bird chasers. When you learn that an Alberto, Becky, or Conrad is headed your way put your binoculars in the car and park your car close to the street. Doing this will prevent your binoculars from being damaged when the roof of your house caves in and your car won't be blocked in the driveway by falling trees.

When you return from the hunt be sure to send me your sightings so I can send all the other crazy hurricane bird chasers a "BirdAlert". 

Hmmm, if a really good blow marches up I 65 out of Mobile I might be able to get boobies  and gannets somewhere around Bay Minette. The lake at Claude Kelly State Park might be good for a Sooty Tern and Gantt Lake will be a good bet for a tropicbird. Let's see, it's August the second and cloudy, guess I better take a look at AccuWeather.com.

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