In mid-September, a lot of London bird watchers were eager to see the Swallow-tailed Kite that had been spotted a little south-east of the city. Conveniently, it found enough food to sustain itself and stayed in the same area for a while.
This species really has no business being in Southwestern Ontario, so there was a bit of chatter among those who gathered to admire the bird about why it was here. Most Swallow-tailed Kites make their homes in Florida. Was it simply lost? Had Hurricane Nicholas pushed it up to us? Did it ride north on some other errant wind?
And what about other mega-rarities? How did a Spotted Towhee make its way to London this past winter? What path did the Blue Grosbeak take in the spring to get to us?
With tools such as eBird, a curious bird enthusiast could try to piece together a bird’s story. A bird as unique as the Kite will be noticed, so it’s likely that some sightings of it would have been made as it moved north. One could then “connect the dots” to determine with some confidence the timing and route of the bird’s journey, Although we don’t yet know for sure about this particular Kite, we do know that heavy weather such as hurricanes and tropical storms can blow some birds far from home.
In 2018, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology posted information about how hurricanes affect birds. “Large storm systems may drive some birds far off-course. Strong-flying birds often move ahead of the storm, carried by the winds at the forefront of the weather system. Brown Pelicans, Magnificent Frigatebirds, and other oceanic birds have been recorded far inland, sometimes more than a thousand miles from the coast, after hurricanes. Some of these birds may find their way back; others, unable to deal with the unfamiliar terrain or to find appropriate food in freshwater, may die.”
In the “News” section of eBird, there is an interesting post about how Hurricane Irene temporarily affected the range of some tropical birds. Rare bird species sightings have been documented across Southwestern Ontario immediately following other hurricanes such as Hurricane Sandy.
Dr. Christopher Heckscher has done some scientific research on the theme of hurricanes and birds. He studied Veery’s and determined that this species accurately predicted and then significantly adapted its behaviors to hurricanes. His 20-year study was published in 2018 in the online journal nature.com.
It is safe to say that while hurricanes often cause massive destruction and loss, they can also result in what The Cornell Lab of Ornithology refers to as legendary birding.
We now know that other extreme weather will provoke the relocation of many birds. Ornithologists Jeremy M. Cohen, Daniel Fink, and Benjamin Zuckerberg have published research relating to birds’ responses to heat waves and drought and birds’ responses to polar vortices and other extreme winter weather. These behaviors are expected to become more apparent in the face of climate change.
At Western University’s own Advanced Facility for Avian Research (known as AFAR) there has been further research relating to birds and weather. For example, Scott MacDougall-Shackleton, Christopher Guglielmo, and Jessica Metcalfe demonstrated that that by keying in on barometric pressure, birds such as White-throated Sparrows predict and adapt to changes in weather.