Hurricane Sandy created perfect conditions for rarities to show up in Pennsylvania. I will admit I was skeptical of just how disruptive this storm would be. Hurricanes in the northeast tend to get exaggerated by the media, and they always seem to lose power quickly and break up once they hit land. But Hurricane Sandy was really the perfect storm; a cold front from the northwest brought in loads of new migrants (mainly waterfowl and especially ‘Atlantic’ Brant), while the unstoppable hurricane whipped in thousands of coastal and pelagic species with its counter-clockwise movement. The migrants from the north had nowhere to go when faced with the 800 mile wide storm, and the displaced birds from coastal areas and the ocean could do nothing but drop when they were tired, in search of lakes or rivers. If you look back at the forecasts that BirdCast was posting on their website multiple times per day, you can get an idea of exactly how the storm moved through the northeast.
On Monday, the day before the hurricane was scheduled to really hit PA, we birded Bald Eagle State Park (BESP) and were successful with migrant waterfowl, likely brought in by the recent cold front and pushed down onto the lake by the deteriorating weather. Check out our three checklists from BESP that evening from the Howard Park and Boat Launch, the BESP swimming beach, and the BESP sunken road overlook. Highlights included a single Brant that had been found the day before at Lower Greens, and an assortment of waterfowl including the county’s first of fall Red-breasted Merganser. If only we knew what was in store for the next day…..
On Tuesday morning (Oct 30th), Alex and I woke up at 6 am to arrive at Bald Eagle State Park by day break. The eye was just a little ways to the southeast of us, so the storm was almost directly over Centre County. Winds were predicted to be gusting up to 40 mph, but it just looked like another rainy day outside with average winds. When we got to Bald Eagle State Park, the wind was a little more obvious in the form of “white-caps” on the lake…yes, the reservoir had mini waves on it! Combined with the overcast skies, the lake was the perfect scene for wayward migrants and rarities to take a rest.
While the rain was constant, it wasn’t unbearable to bird in, especially since we spent most of our time standing under a pavilion at the swimming beach. The wind was, for the most part, calm enough to easily use a spotting scope in. Dunlin were flying over the lake by the hundreds, looking for places to land and forage. None of them ever stopped at the beach though, but a few flocks did think about it and circled over us a few times before ultimately deciding to give up. We had a total of 2187 Dunlin fly past us during our time at BESP yesterday. The previous high count for Dunlin in the county was approximately 100 birds seen at Colyer Lake in October of 2004. I can’t even imagine what the real total number of Dunlin to pass through BESP was during the whole day yesterday, if we had that many in only 5 hrs!
A few Forster’s Terns were foraging around the lake edge, and a few rafts of Ruddy Duck and scaup were already present, with occasional Hooded Mergansers, Horned Grebes, Black and White-winged Scoters, and Ring-necked Ducks mixed in. After a few minutes of watching, a new group of scaup joined an existing raft, and three ‘Atlantic’ Brant landed on the lake. We saw a total of 17 duck/goose species during the morning! Throughout the morning, flocks of ‘Atlantic’ Brant, Northern Pintail, scaup, and Mallards flew overhead, headed south for the dam. Keep in mind….the previous Centre County high count for Brant in Centre County was 55 – seen by Dr. Merrill Wood at BESP in November of 1977. Yesterday, we saw a total of 426. Hurricane Sandy totally smashed the old record and we were lucky enough to be there to witness it! The Brant came through in a total of 6 flocks, ranging in size from 24 to 115 birds. I had never seen so many Brant away from the coast and they all passed very close and low. As we stood at the beach, we could pick out the flocks as they flew right at us, coming from above the town of Howard. They would then drop low over the water, and get some height as they flew right over our heads! We were usually close enough to hear their cute little honks.
The Northern Pintail were particularly interesting; most pintail should be at the coast at this point in the season. In addition, they are fairly rare fall migrants in Centre County. It is possible that these particular groups of pintail were flocks pushed back inland by the hurricane, rather than birds on their initial migration south. Other nice waterfowl sightings included the county’s first Red-throated Loon of the fall, which was a flyby adult.
Ian Gardner and Nate Fronk stationed themselves atop the BESP dam to scope the portion of the lake not visible to our group of birders at the pavillion. At one point they had an interesting bird fly past in the distance. The markings looked great for an immature Black-legged Kittiwake, which would be totally possible although rare (this species was seen elsewhere in the state during the day). They really couldn’t rule out that it may have been an immature Bonaparte’s Gull. Nate called Alex to let him know that it was headed our way, so Josh Lefever, Wayne Laubscher, Alex, and I started scanning like crazy to try and pick up the bird. Sadly, it never came out direction and wasn’t seen again. We never ended up having any immature Bonaparte’s Gulls either…..
By far the best sighting of the morning happened at 9:15am. Wayne, Josh, Alex, and I were standing near the beach and scanning for birds. Wayne got a call that Steve Pinkerton had a jaeger over in Lycoming County. We were all bummed that we didn’t have one yet. But then about 1 second later, I spotted a dark bird coming towards us from over Howard. Alex yelled out “JAEGER” and we both ran to the water’s edge and started snapping photos! What a great bird to see in Centre County – and only the second confirmed county record!
The jeager was gone as fast as it came and we thought it would be on its way like most of the birds that flew past us. It was a great bird but sadly, we doubted anyone else would be able to see it. Michael David arrived a few minutes later and he and Alex went searching for birds near the dam. Surprisingly, Michael spotted the jaeger again! This time it was floating on the water out from the sunken road overlook and occasionally flying around the dam area. It spent much of its time bothering (and being bothered by) the 5 Bald Eagles in the area. At one point we saw an immature eagle and the Pomarine engage in a short aerial battle. Below is a picture showing 3 Bald Eagles flying around with the Pomarine Jaeger – crazy!
While we were birding Bald Eagle SP, Alex’s phone was getting text alerts of rarities elsewhere in the state every few minutes. It seemed like just about every lake or stretch of river with a birder watching it had a Pomarine Jeager or two (or 47 individuals travelling TOGETHER as was the case at West Fairview in Dauphin County). Other crazy birds were showing up everywhere as well. Tons of rarities were being reported on the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg (including Black Skimmer, Red Knot, American Oystercatcher, and of course the jaegers). Here is a link to our full eBird list from BESP. We were pretty happy with our results at Bald Eagle SP but it was too hard to ignore the stream of rarity text alerts coming from the Susquehanna, so we decided to give up on BESP and drive down to the West Fairview boat launch. Check back later to see photos and info about the ridiculous birds we added to our state lists there!
Update – After we left, many other Centre County area birders continued to bird BESP and found saw interesting things. First off, Nate Fronk discovered a second Pomarine Jaeger and witnessed both birds in flight together! There was also a massive flock of Greater Yellowlegs that landed on the swimming beach briefly, containing an astonishing 74 birds! Below are some of Wayne Laubscher’s photos of a portion of the yellowlegs flock.