As thousands of North Carolina residents were hunkering down or fleeing from Hurricane Florence on Thursday, 21-year-old Alec Hopping got into his car in Ithaca, N.Y., and headed toward it.
His Toyota Prius was loaded with three cans of gasoline, first-aid supplies, snacks, cameras, binoculars. His phone was loaded with radar apps to track the storm. His destination was the eye of the hurricane, where he and a friend, Logan Kahle, hoped to witness something known as “fallout.”
Fallout, in this case, meant birds, lots of birds, and strange ones at that — seabirds on shore, shorebirds far inland, tropical birds way out of their range.
Hurricanes, with their high winds and ocean tracks, can be roller coasters for birds. Those caught in them are whipped around, and experts say many probably die of exhaustion. But some make it — either by getting stuck in the calm eye or by sheer luck — and then land far from their home habitats. Some passionate birders — the kind who keep detailed lists of species they spot — are there to greet them.
“It’s very exciting for birders when that happens,” said Walker Golder, the National Audubon Society’s program director of Atlantic Coast flyway strategy.
Storm-birding, or hurricane-birding, is not for the casual birdwatcher. It can involve getting very wet, and it sometimes involves risk. Hopping and Kahle, for example, retreated from an area 20 miles from the North Carolina coast when power lines started falling, then headed inland to Buckhorn Reservoir, east of Raleigh.
The eye seemed stuck offshore, but they had studied reports on websites including eBird of remarkable bird sightings during past hurricanes. They figured they would head to a reservoir where unusual birds had shown up during past storms. They slept in the car. On Saturday morning, after waves of various species of seabirds called terns showed up in front of them, Kahle shouted out: “Trindade petrel!”
The Trindade petrel is a dark-bodied, white-bellied seabird that breeds on islands hundreds of miles off Brazil and otherwise rarely touches land. But it roams the Atlantic and often hangs out over Gulf Stream waters off North Carolina. Only twice before, as far as Hopping knew, had it been recorded inland in North America, in 1996 and 1933.
On this morning, it “basically just materialized out of the sky” at Buckhorn Reservoir, recalled Hopping. His camera had broken, so he quickly used his phone to take photos through his spotting scope that “look like they were painted by Monet really far away.”
“Oh, it was really worth it,” said Hopping, a Cornell University junior studying environmental science and sustainability. “We were really lucky. ... It was shocking and so cool.”
Hurricanes affect birds in other ways. In the Carolinas, it’s possible that Florence damaged pine forests that species such as the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker depend on for nesting and foraging, Golder said. Hurricanes can submerge river islands where some seabirds nest, and erosion can prompt worried humans to harden shorelines, removing more habitat that migrating birds use as stopovers during long journeys south.
But there are upsides, Golder said. Some seabirds nest in sandy spots with sparse vegetation — the kind of habitat that washover from storms like Florence can make on barrier islands. In general, birds shelter as best they can, said Golder, who noted that migrant warblers were busily foraging in his Wilmington, N.C., backyard when the rains stopped, then retreated again — to where, he does not know — when they resumed their trip.
“Birds have been dealing with hurricanes for as long as there have been birds and hurricanes,” he said.
As for those sought-after birds displaced by storms? Unless they’re banded and tracked, their fate is unclear, Golder said. They probably try to follow rivers back to the ocean. But without their usual seafood diet, they might not have the energy to make it, he said.
“It’s tough being a bird,” said Nathan Gatto, the owner of Wright’s Backyard Birding Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. “It’s always something you think about when you see a really lost bird.”
Gatto, 30, didn’t go straight into Florence to look for rarities, although he is the type of birder who has driven 19 hours each way to try — and fail — to spot a Ross’s gull that had been reported in New York. But when it came to a hurricane in his state, he said he didn’t want to be that birder who got in trouble and required rescue.
Nevertheless, he spent six very rainy hours Saturday and eight sopping hours Sunday looking for birds at a lake near his city, outside the storm’s path. He was rewarded with several terns, including the second recorded royal tern in Forsyth County and “cool little shore birds” called red-necked phalaropes.
His birding gear, he noted, is waterproof. “We still got pretty wet,” Gatto said.
Of course, many people in the storm’s path got a lot more than wet. Florence dropped 8 trillion gallons of water onto North Carolina, leading to mass flooding and the storm-related deaths of at least 37 people in three states. Knowing that sort of devastation can happen means sightings come with mixed emotions, birders said.
“I know every birder in North Carolina had this sort of hope that it was going to come right over and mess some stuff up and bring some birds through, but you feel a little bad about it,” said Sam Jolly, 21, a North Carolina State University student who spotted a very rare arctic tern and other oceangoing birds at a lake southwest of Raleigh during the weekend.
“When birders are hoping for a storm, they want it to pass as a weak Category 1, or maybe a tropical storm,” said Jolly, adding that he was “not that hardcore” to want to head into the storm itself.
Hopping, a Colorado native who said he has loved birds since third grade and went to Cornell because of its renowned ornithology lab, previously traveled alone to South America to look for birds. But he and Kahle had never birded a hurricane before, and it didn’t take long to realize that it wasn’t wise to stay in the thick of it.
“Shingles were ripping off houses. Parts of rooms were ripping off. You could lean over at a 45-degree angle and just kind of hang into it,” he said of the winds closer to the coast on Friday. “Once power lines started going down ... we got out of there.”
But the reservoir proved fruitful. There, according to his eBird checklist, he and Kahle saw 36 species, nearly one-third of which Hopping logged as “hurricane birds.”
“I don’t know if I would do the same thing again,” Hopping said of his storm-chasing. “But for a one-time thing, it was really awesome.”