For the Birds Radio Program: Weird Weather

Original Air Date: Nov. 13, 1998

Weird weather is sending birds to unusual places.

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November 10 brought Lake Superior the same kind of weather that brought down the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975. Waves of 18–20 feet were even larger than the 16-foot ones that sunk the Fitzgerald. Satellite images of the storm looked like a hurricane. And in the way that hurricanes blow birds far out of their range, this land hurricane blew them to unexpected places, too.

On November 11, the day after the storm hit Lake Superior, suddenly Franklin’s Gulls from the Great Plains and the West were turning up in Wisconsin, New York state, and Niagara Falls, Fort Erie, and Point Pelee in Ontario. Birders from all over, especially the storm center in Wisconsin, were searching for birds blown off course. During the peak winds, one Wisconsin birder had a junco alight on his shoe to his delight and the little bird’s bewilderment. The fierce wind dashed another junco against a house. On the internet, people from all over the Midwest commented about birds struggling against the wind, from little songbirds to eagles and geese. Even though it was hard for birds to maintain control of their flight when being tossed about by winds that were lifting huge trucks off the highway, they were often safer in the air than on the ground, because the higher up they were, the fewer objects were nearby to be thrown into. So migrants stayed up.

Swan numbers along the Mississippi, most notably at Alma, Wisconsin, one of their favorite rest stops, has been unusually low all season, but the storm blew in well over a thousand. Several people along the Mississippi commented on Wisconsin and Minnesota internet bird chats about waking up in the middle of the night to their wild cries. One La Crosse birder wrote about setting his spotting scope up to watch the birds migrating down the Mississippi on November 11. He said flocks of ducks, geese, and swans streamed endlessly down the river, the narrow field of his scope filled with birds all day. And the swans called out their wild, haunting cries long into the night.

Swans are supposed to migrate west to east, since most winter on the Chesapeake Bay. But another enormous white bird, the Whooping Crane, normally migrates pretty much due south, from their breeding grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada almost straight down to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. This year the cranes were over two weeks late arriving in Aransas, and their migration through the US was peaking just as this storm blew through, displacing many close to a thousand miles west of where they normally migrated. Suddenly birders were noting them in out-of-the-way places. On November 11, someone from West Bend, Wisconsin, called in a sighting on Larry Meiller’s noon-time program on Wisconsin Public Radio. Birdwatchers flooded the radio network with phone calls, and the next day Larry asked on the air that whoever called in would call back with details, but didn’t hear from the caller again. Meanwhile, another whooper was seen and photographed at Illinois Beach State Park. Acquisitive listers in droves braced the cold to search the countryside for more. Of course, since the entire Whooping Crane population is only about 190, finding one of these birds anywhere outside of Aransas is like finding that needle in a haystack. But what a magnificent needle it is! Lost birds will be recovering physically and getting their bearings again for days now, and birders will be out there thrilling at the displaced birds, who may not really want to be where they are but are glad to be alive and don’t seem any worse off for bringing pleasure to a bunch of binocular-bearing humans. They’ll move on back to where they belong and we’ll all move into a normal winter weather pattern soon enough.