Hurricane Idalia is being credited with delivering a flamingo-palooza to the Eastern United States this week.
The iconic, pink plumaged birds first started showing up all over Florida, on both coasts and the northern Gulf Coast as Hurricane Idalia passed. By Saturday however, three days after landfall, flamingo sightings had been reported in Alabama, South and North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia.
A flock – or more precisely a flamboyance – of flamingos was seen Sunday along the Bolivar Peninsula in Texas. Bird watchers and ornithologists tallied estimates of more than 150 flamingos sighted over five days.
More than 70 birds had been reported in Florida, said Jeff Bouton, a Kowa Sporting Optics’ sales and marketing manager for the birding and nature markets in the Americas and one of the first to report the new arrivals.
The flamingos ignited a frenzy in the birding world amid a flood of comments on social media as birders traded news of the latest sightings and scattered out across eight states hoping for a look at the leggy, pink wading birds.
It’s not unheard of for birds to be caught up in hurricanes and dropped out along the coasts. Birders sometimes refer to these incidents as “fallout,” and it’s a scene immortalized in the movie, “Big Year.” The movie’s three main characters all converge on a park to bird after a storm.
It’s not even all that unusual for the random flamingo to show up in Florida after a storm. Colonies of the birds are found in the Caribbean including the Yucatan, where Idalia lingered for days, building up steam to make its run up the Gulf of Mexico and into Florida.
But it’s unprecedented to get this many flamingos in this many places, said Greg Neise, a webmaster for the American Birding Association and an administrator of its rare bird alert Facebook group.
Where did the flamingos come from?
After a photographer captured a close up of bands on the legs of a flamingo seen at Grassy Key in the Florida Keys, Mariah Hryniewich reached out to avian researchers to identify the bands and the bird. In a Facebook post Sunday, Hryniewich said she had confirmed the flamingo was hatched and given the rings, or bands, in 2000 at the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, making the bird 23 years old.
At least two wild flamingos seen in Florida in the past were also traced back to the Yucatan.
The gangly birds stand 47-55 inches tall. Native to Florida, historians say they were decimated by the plume trade in the late 1800s and early 1900s, like many wading birds, but have been seen more often in recent decades.
Birder braves storm winds, gets record sighting
After securing his home and realizing the worst of Idalia was past his community, Bouton headed out to try his luck for unusual birds that might arrive with the hurricane’s strong offshore winds and bands of squall lines. It’s “a perfect scenario” for a birder, Bouton wrote in a Facebook post. You’re guaranteed to “get wet and battered by strong winds & your gear and lenses will absolutely get covered by salt spray generated by powerful surf.”
Buffeted by winds and salt spray at the Boca Grande Fishing Pier, he spotted “five large birds low on the water with slow loping wing flaps.” Lifting his binoculars he noted long necks. “I still couldn’t fathom what I was seeing until they angled slightly giving me a view of the profile,” he wrote.
Bouton said his birding companion, Jeff Fisher, looked up expecting to see one of Florida’s most famous plastic lawn ornaments washed into the nearby mangroves − until he saw Bouton swinging his telescope into place and mounting his phone for photos. It was Bouton’s 683rd bird species photographed this year, but the first ever documented sighting of a flamingo in Charlotte County.
How does a hurricane move birds around?
Bird researchers have several theories about the birds’ passage to Florida. “They came in on the storm, whether they wanted to or not,” said Jerry Lorenz, state director of research for Audubon Florida.
Birds have previously been documented in the calm center of hurricanes. Birds also try to fly around the storm and get diverted, or they’re already aloft and they get caught up with outer bands, then ride the bands until they reach land or they drop into the ocean, said Bill Pranty, an avid birder and co-author of a 2007 research paper on a flamingo sighting in northeast Florida. He speculated that as Idalia moved north from the Yucatan, the birds traveled into the U.S. in the storm’s counter-clockwise rain bands.
Pranty estimated the birds, with muscle structure for sustained flight, might have been able to reach the roughly 500 miles to Tampa Bay in about eight hours, considering a flight speed capability of maybe 15 mph and strong tail winds of 50-60 mph.
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Flamingos seen in Ohio state park
George Keller had just completed a fruitless search for monarch butterflies in Caesar Creek State Park in Waynesville, Ohio, Friday morning and decided to look for birds instead. He saw park workers looking at something and he walked over. “I was like wait, those are flamingos. What are flamingos doing here?”
The entomology student and bird watcher had heard about the sightings in Florida but never expected to see them in Ohio, he said. “It’s just crazy.”
He grabbed his Canon camera he takes everywhere and “started taking pictures like crazy,” because he knew that was a bird sighting that would have to be fully documented.
Flamingos seen in South Carolina coastal refuge
Annie Owen and Richard Stuhr, a naturalist and boat captain with Coastal Expeditions in Charleston, South Carolina, first spotted two flamingos in the Cape Romaine National Wildlife Refuge on Friday.
When Chris Crolley, a boat driver for the group services concession for the refuge, saw them on Friday, he at first thought they might be roseate spoonbills, another brilliant pink wading bird. But then the birds unfolded their necks and heads from the water, Crolley said. “They made this beautiful treble clef, this giant “s” and I said ‘Oh my God, they’re flamingos.’ They were just beautiful.”
On Saturday, Crolley said he was staged on the remote spot on an island where the birds were being seen to try to keep people at a distance because he figured the birds were tired and hungry.
Crolley said he’s heard flamingos were seen in the state after Hurricane Hugo hit South Carolina in 1989.
Other flamingo sightings
Flamingo sightings were reported all over South Florida over the past couple of days, in the Florida Keys and Collier County. They were also reported along the coast where Idalia blew by and made landfall, including Lee, Sarasota, Levy, Taylor and Madison counties. Several birds also were seen in St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, where a lone flamingo was spotted off and on for several years. On the state’s east coast, flamingo sightings were reported in Palm Beach, Brevard and Volusia counties.
In North Carolina, 11 flamingos were reported at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, and two were reported by kayakers in the Plum Tree Island National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. A group of five were reported in Wayne County Tennessee and a trio were reported Saturday in Hale County, Alabama.
What happens now?
The flamingos may return to their original colonies or destinations, Lorenz said. Or, they could linger in Florida. “That’s what we’re hoping they’ll do,” Lorenz said, to finally reestablish a wild breeding population of flamingos.
It could happen. If these long-lived birds settled in a new area, with enough birds in a suitable habitat, they could establish a new nesting colony, said avian conservation scientist Ken Rosenberg, retired from Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. “That would be cool.”
Source: USA Today