8 September 2017, 10am EDT:
Many of us are watching with morbid fascination as Hurricane Irma churns through the Caribbean on its way to Florida. Even if we aren’t in Irma’s path, we know people who are and we’re worried.
After Irma passed over the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) I searched the Internet for footage of St. John, USVI, where I visited in January 2015. I found information in this USA Today article with links to the USVI Hurricane Irma Alert Facebook page. Beyond the obvious human suffering, I am struck by how brown the landscape is now. All the leaves were blown off the trees.
Where are the birds? What did they do during the storm?
Fortunately birds have strategies for coping with bad weather including:
Shelter in Place
Like us, birds hide out of the wind and rain and wait for the storm to end. They use man-made structures, thickets, and deep valleys where the wind is less intense. Their strategies are described here in Shelter From The Storm.
Birds can sense when a storm is coming and often evacuate before it strikes. A study of golden-winged warblers found that they left Tennessee a day ahead of a tornado: Warblers Fled Tornado One Day Ahead. Land birds in Florida can move northwest as Irma approaches but the birds on Caribbean islands had nowhere to go.
Fly In the Eye of the Storm
Sea birds have a third option. As they fly in search of a calm spot, they end up in the eye of the hurricane where they travel with the storm until the winds die down. This NASA image shows that the eye of Irma on Sept 5 was larger than both Anguilla and St. Martin so it was probably a relatively safe place. However, the hurricane won’t lose power until it’s over land so the sea birds may be exhausted when they finally stop far inland.
People and birds in the path of Hurricane Irma are all getting ready. I think of my friends and family in Florida.
For more the latest information on current hurricanes, see NOAA’s National Hurricane Center.
(photo credits: Hurricane Irma satellite animation from NOAA, photo of pigeons sheltering from Wikimedia Commons, photo of tornado from Wikimedia Commons, Eye of Hurricane Irma from NASA Sport. Click on the images to see the originals.)