An Avian Coastal Evacuation

October 29: Tom Johnson and Doug Gochfeld were still navigating to my parents’ home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, when Hurricane Sandy made landfall. Their arrival was timed perfectly with the loss of internet and cable (which my parents wouldn’t see again for another three days). Shortly thereafter, we lost power. So as we huddled around a battery-powered lamp, we discussed plans for our own storm-chasing blitz. It didn’t take long to decide. We would be heading to Philadelphia County, to Frank Windfelder’s preferred viewing outpost: Pennypack on the Delaware.

October 30: After skirting one downed wire and the confusion of many intersections with dysfunctional street lights, we arrived there just as first light allowed the use of optics. We quickly noticed a large flock of terns milling about over the river, followed by a probable Pomarine Jaeger, but without the sun in sight, we just couldn’t be sure. It didn’t take long before Tom was blaring, “Royal Terns!,” as two birds headed upriver (an interesting trend for many of the rarities on day one of this storm). A short while later, two more Royal Terns were heading the same direction. By this point, the core contingent of observers had assembled: Frank Windfelder, George Armistead, Todd Fellenbaum, Martin Dellwo, and our mascot – a single, obliging Sanderling – which landed next to us by the river’s edge (and was promptly named Sandy).

My excitement for a subadult Parasitic Jaeger, calmly floating downriver, was soon superseded by a small, dark bird flying quickly over the water. “Leach’s Storm-Petrel!” And then another, and another. It didn’t take long before we were routinely seeing Leach’s Storm-Petrels flying in all directions, sitting on the river, and making it difficult to get an accurate count. George spotted a final Royal Tern for good measure (below); interestingly, despite five individuals here, this species was not widely seen in PA with this storm.

Royal Tern – Pennypack on the Delaware (photo by Cameron Rutt)

Still more people were showing up and reports were pouring in both regionally and from around the state. Marshall Iliff set up shop slightly downriver on the New Jersey side and we began relaying information back-and-forth. Thanks in large part to this newfound communication, Sooty Tern (below), Sabine’s Gull, and Red Phalarope were all fantastic new additions to the day’s tally. We continued to enjoy an amazing show of coastal waterbirds, with hundreds of Brant flying upriver, as well as all three scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, and Red-throated Loons. However, the more pelagic species seemed to have tapered off, so we at last uprooted ourselves and took off for points south. A complete eBird list from our morning can be viewed here (Compared to other places in the state, as well as Cape May, NJ, it was surprising that so few Pomarine Jaegers were on the Delaware River.):

Sooty Tern (juvenile) – from Pennypack on the Delaware, Philadelphia, PA over the Delaware River (photo by Tom Johnson)

Our next river vigil was from Marcus Hook, Delaware County. I picked out a Peregrine Falcon bombing over the river and Doug joked that we should be on the lookout for storm-petrels, as already that morning, we heard reports of Peregrines preying on these storm-driven birds. Well, it didn’t take long before he made that prophecy self-fulfilling, finding a Leach’s Storm-Petrel at the bottom of a Peregrine stoop. Soon, two Peregrines, working in tandem, drove the evasive seabird to the shoreline. And right to us. Despite impressive acrobatics, it was ultimately no match for the Peregrines and met its grim fate within a stone’s throw of our location.

Peregrine Falcon and Leach’s Storm-Petrel – Marcus Hook, PA (photo by Doug Gochfeld)

We were about ready to depart when Chris Langman casually mentioned, “two American Oystercatchers.” “What?” “Where?” Sure enough, a pair of oystercatchers appeared from behind a large ship, heading towards the Delaware Bay.

American Oystercatchers flying downriver – Marcus Hook, Delaware River, Pennsylvania – (photo by Tom Johnson)

Reports from the Susquehanna River were still sizzling, while the Delaware River appeared to be quieting down. But it wasn’t until Melissa Roach spotted a sitting Northern Gannet at West Fairview, Dauphin County, when we decided enough was enough. We booked westward as quickly as possible, but arrived too late for the gannet, which had flown north. We decided to try Marysville, a bit farther upriver, as more than enough optics were already scouring the river at West Fairview. Marysville did not disappoint. As it got colder and wetter, we still managed to find another Red Phalarope, floating downriver, and a late Snowy Egret. But it was Tom who capped off the day with a juvenile Black-legged Kittiwake flying and sitting on the river immediately in front of us.

October 31: Surprisingly, Laughing Gulls notwithstanding, the Susquehanna River at Harrisburg was devoid of storm-driven birds the following morning. We couldn’t linger long, though, as Tom needed to be back in Rhode Island that afternoon. Regretfully, we had to head against the storm’s track, but, of course, we could afford one stop along the way. A few minute scan at Lake Ontelaunee, Berks County, provided yet another Red Phalarope.

Back home again in Bucks County – some 30 hours later – I joined August Mirabella at Lake Nockamixon, where scoters were the only waterbirds that appeared to be remnants of the storm. Bill Etter and Rick Wiltraut had spied a single Cave Swallow earlier that day, so we were delighted to find two together, foraging with a small group of Tree Swallows. Prior to this storm, this species has been recorded very sparsely in PA during the past decade.

November 1: August Mirabella and I set off again in search of storm-driven birds, more specifically, storm-driven sparrows. Believe it or not, we actually arrived at Pine Run with the ambitious goal of Seaside or Saltmarsh Sparrow (but, really, that was more of a ploy for doing some much-needed songbirding). Thus, it seemed more than a bit suspicious when one of the first sparrows we flushed was a sharp-tailed sparrow. This was compounded by the fact that it didn’t look quite right for the expected inland subspecies of Nelson’s Sparrow. But after playing a less than satisfying game of hide-and-seek, we finally landed some photographic proof – a PA Saltmarsh Sparrow!

Saltmarsh Sparrow – Pine Run Reservoir, BUCKS (photo by Cameron Rutt)

In all, it was, without competition, easily the best stretch of birding I’ve ever enjoyed in Pennsylvania. Moreover, it hasn’t stopped. Another complimentary run of western species have been popping up all over the state in the past week. Without hyperbole, I think you’d be hard-pressed to pinpoint a better week of birding in Pennsylvania. Ever.

*Underlined species represent those that are on the Pennsylvania review list.

To see additional pictures, please visit the following flickr sites: – Tom Johnson – Cameron Rutt