Sunday, June 19, 2005

Wilson's Storm-Petrels in Long Island Sound

One of the marvels of the natural world is how relatively easy it is for birds to get around and therefore how relatively easy it is for them to turn up in unexpected places. For the last couple of weeks, reports of Wilson's storm-petrels in Long Island Sound have been turning up almost daily in the e-mails that the Connecticut Ornithological Association sends out and last weekend observers saw them during the annual Greenwich Audubon summer bird count. From last night's COA email:

From Al Collins:
6/18 - Stamford, 2-3 miles off Stamford -- 4 WILSON'S STORM PETREL

The storm-petrels' visits to the Sound seem different than the sighting of the occasional rarity blown off course, across the ocean from Africa, say, an event that inevitably prompts scores of birders to journey to Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket or wherever to add a rare falcon or heron to their life lists. Those are one-time freak events. In contrast, it's possible that some Wilson's storm-petrels (their scientific name, Oceanites oceanicus gives a good indication of where they are usually found) have made the Sound part of their incredible annual migration route.

In Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, Scott Weidensaul says of Wilson's storm-petrels:

A weak fluttery flier not much larger than a swallow, this petite bird nonetheless departs each April from its breeding islands off Antarctica and moves up the coast of South America on the southeast trade winds, then clockwise across the North Atlantic during our summer, this time riding the sea breezes known as the westerlies. Then the storm-petrels are pushed south off Gibraltar and Africa, recrossing the Atlantic to South America on the northeast trades, and back to their islands by November, the start of the Antarctic summer and another breeding season. Over this whole, clockwise trip, which may span 18,000 miles, the petrels rarely have to buck a head wind.

Long Island Sound is too small and has too many really good birders living near it for anyone to have missed the storm-petrels over the years. In an email, Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut, said:

An interesting Sound-related story unfolding...Wilson's Storm-Petrel's seem to be getting more and more regular every year. As of when Zeranski and Baptist [Connecticut Birds] came out in 1990, it listed Wilson's Storm-Petrels as "Very rare visitor from late June to late August with most occurrences in August. It is most likely to appear after tropical storms and hurricanes." Since that time they seem to be getting more and more regular each year and this year there have been a bunch of sightings already, including into far western Long Island Sound. This is one of three seabirds that I can think of that seem to be on the increase in the sound, along with Razorbills and Northern Gannets.

Not sure how much of this can be attributed to increased focus on looking for these species and how much of it is an actual increase. I suspect it is a little of both. Although, in 5 years of regularly working on boats in Long Island Sound in the late '90s, I never saw a Storm-Petrel.

I asked him what he meant when he said he was "regularly working on boats." He explained in a subsequent e-mail:

In the 90's I was working for the Stewart B. McKinney NWR and during the summer I would go out to Falkner Island several times a week. My first year there in '97 we did a Roseate Tern foraging survey, where we would follow the Roseates as they came off of Falkner Island on foraging runs and follow them to where they caught their food and headed back to the island. Sometimes the foraging area was over 10 miles away. We also went out to Chimon, Sheffield and Goose Islands reasonably often.

What's going on with Wilson's storm-petrels? It reminds me of the mid-1980s, when all of a sudden people began finding Kemp's ridley turtles -- the rarest sea turtle on the planet -- in the Sound. It wasn't clear then, and it isn't today, whether they rode the currents into the Sound by accident for a couple of years or if the Sound was part of their regular migratory route.

No one can say definitively whether the Wilson's storm petrels are here to stay or whether their visits are accidental and unlikely to be repeated. But whichever is the case, it's a fascinating addition to the Sound's natural history.

Other interesting things are going on as well. Here's the Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time on jelly fish and horseshoe crabs.


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