A Perfect Storm

by Greg Neise on November 2, 2010

It was the kind of news that gets birders salivating: a monster storm was headed into the upper Midwest. The exact numbers are still being worked out, but Tom Skilling of Chicago’s WGN Weather Center called it “the 2nd most intense storm in the lower 48 states.” Ever.

As the storm passed over Big Fork, MN, the barometric pressure read 28.20″. There have only been two non-tropical storms with pressures that low—one in NY in 1913 and the other in RI in 1932. This was indeed an event. Here’s what the NOAA weather map looked like for Tuesday October 26:

We see a high pressure bubble over central Texas that is pushing a cold front across the eastern third of the nation. Directly above it, over Minnesota, is the monster low pressure system pushing another cold front south and east, with all the cold weather and snow predictions behind it. The space in between the two form a funnel of very warm air aimed directly at the Great Lakes, pushing sustained WSW winds of 30-40 mph. All this during one of the best times of the year for finding vagrants in the east: late fall. You couldn’t ask for a better setup. Here’s the Doppler radar:

Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin could have some very interesting birding indeed as this storm passed. A storm like this could produce almost anything from southern vagrants, tropical vagrants, western overshoots…you name it. It was just a matter of getting out there to find them.

Vagrants are needles in a haystack. You’ve got to have your wits about you—question every sparrow that seems “a bit odd” and take a second look at that gull that “just doesn’t seem right”. Even after an event like this, that could drop record numbers of really good birds all over the place, it takes time and effort to get out there and find them. So this post has been brewing a while to allow people a chance to find the birds.

And birds were found. To my mind, the most unexpected birds of the week are an apparent “flight” of Anna’s Hummingbirds. Anna’s is a bird of the Pacific buy inderal online australia coast, breeding in California, Oregon and Washington. It winters in most of its breeding range and some move south into northern Mexico. Assuming these birds came from the northern part of their range (and there’s no reason to assume that except that “it feels right”), that puts these little birds some 1,500–1,900 miles out-of-range. To make it even more amazing, two have been found at the same hummingbird feeder in Grand Marais, Michigan…a male and a female! Here’s a shot of the male:

Anna's Hummingbird photo by Darlene Friedman

Here’s that same radar map, with this week’s rarities plotted on them. This is by no means all of them—if all of the Cave Swallows reported along Lake Erie were represented, that whole part of the map would be a giant yellow blob! Note in particular the one at Long Point Ontario: they had over 100 Cave swallows in one day.

The two red dots are the Anna’s Hummingbirds: two at Grand Marais , MI and one in central Iowa. The pink dot is a Rufous Hummingbird near Manistee Mi. The yellow dots represent sightings of Cave Swallows. Cave’s are a Mexican species that has been pushing it’s range northward. Currently it is pretty easy to find in Texas, but in the past few years a regular pattern of vagrancy has been established with birds showing up all over the Great Lakes and Northeast in October and November. Lastly, the blue dots represent an assortment of western vagrants including a Pacific Loons (WI, MI, IN), Prairie Falcon (MO), Ferruginous Hawk (IL), Spotted Towhee (IL, OH), Golden-crowned Sparrow (MI) and Mountain Bluebird (PA).

It’s been a great week to be out birding, and this week is bringing more good-looking weather. A buckle in the jet stream that is setting up as I write this is predicted to push the coldest air since early April south from Canada, with temps dropping 30 degrees from Wednesday to Thursday. Should be a great time to look for cranes, eagles and Goshawks on the NW winds to follow.

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