Tropical Storm Cindy Birding
Tropical Storm Cindy is the third named tropical storm of the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season and the first tropical storm I’ve been through in Louisiana since I started birding back in 2014. I’ve only read about how tropical storms bring unusual seafaring birds far inland as they either fly ahead of rain bands or become trapped traveling in a well defined storm’s eye but I was cautiously excited about the possibility every time a storm approached.
Tropical Storm Cindy was a relatively weak tropical storm that popped up south of the Yucatan and headed north towards the Louisiana coast. In the days before it made landfall, a massive swarm of about 800 Magnificent Frigatebirds was seen flying up the Mississippi River. Magnificent Frigatebirds are fairly common during the summer wherever Louisiana touches the Gulf of Mexico, but are only seen inland during storm events. When I heard this news, I was excited to get out and see what I could find.
If you’re in New Orleans, you should never say “I can’t wait for the next storm!”. As someone who lost my house and all my belongings in Katrina, I’m one of the lucky ones. Some people lost everything. So, you shouldn’t hope for some tropical weather just to see birds. However, it’s not like you can control the weather, so if life deals you lemons…
Between Wednesday and Thursday , I headed out a couple times to the Mandeville lakefront hoping to see some storm birds. The road was closed due to high water, so I put my rubber boots on and started walking. On Wednesday, the weather was nasty with rain coming in sheets from the east. The wind had whipped Lake Pontchartrain into a frothing mess and waves were crashing over the seawall into the street. I hunkered down under the playground’s awning and started watching. I saw a couple of Magnificent Frigatebirds in the distance, which was exciting, but nothing I could photograph. An immature Herring Gull (also rare inland for the time of year) was flying from perch to perch, trying to find a refuge from the crashing waves.
Terns were everywhere. I saw Royal and Forster’s Terns which are common here in summer but also several Caspian Terns which are far more common inland in winter as they hunt over the marshes along Lake Pontchartrain. ahead of an incoming rain band, I saw a dark tern flying low over the lake with several lighter terns. I immediately thought it was a Black Tern, but the forked tail didn’t fit. After some help, I figured out it was a juvenile Sooty Tern (a life bird)! Sooty Terns are highly marine birds and are usually only seen inland when blown in by storms. This tern just happened to be the first of many more Sooty Terns which were seen inland across Louisiana in the following days including on the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge, False River, Lake Martin in the Atchafalaya Basin, and Lake Vernon on the west central side of the state.
On Thursday, I headed back out to the Mandeville lakefront with my son in tow. The weather was much nicer but the waves were still crashing over the seawall and the water in the streets was much higher. There was no sign of storm-displaced Sooty Terns, but 13 Magnificent Frigatebirds were fighting the wind, flying east back toward the Gulf along the lakefront.
After so many Frigatebirds, it was hard to get excited about our normal summer terns; Forster’s, Royal, and Least but picking through these was part of the fun and Tropical Storm Cindy produced Gull-billed, Caspian, Black, Sooty, and Sandwich Terns all found on Lake Pontchartrain. The only other tern that could’ve been expected but wasn’t seen was a Bridled Tern (another highly pelagic tern) and those were reported just across the state line in Bay St. Louis, MS.
An unexpected life bird and several new unusual county ticks are always a good time in June when most things are generally very static. I’ll be headed on a Louisiana pelagic trip out of Venice, Louisiana in mid-September to try my luck at other seabirds but until then I’ll be gardening and working on my state year list.
I’m currently at 276 species for Louisiana in 2017 (counting feral Canada Goose and Monk Parakeet) and I’m at that phase of year birding where my state eBird alerts only go off about once every week or so and when they do, they’re typically in places at least 5 hours from home. I still needs some elusive local birds like Eastern Screech Owl and Wild Turkey but besides waiting for fall migration, I’d have to visit the western side of the state to try and find a Greater Roadrunner or the northern part of the state to find Lark Sparrow and White-breasted Nuthatch to find any of the expected June species. Motivation for taking out of the way trips is minimal for the chance of one or two new species that wouldn’t even be life birds so if work doesn’t take me there, those may just be misses. Until next time, good birding.