Saturday, September 24, 2005

Storm Affects Southbound Migration of Birds

Poor birds. I hope the changes aren't too permanent and that the species can rebound and recover, especially the local birds.

Storm Affects Southbound Migration of Birds

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (Sept. 23) - For millennia, fall's Gulf of Mexico hurricanes have butted gale-force winds against the southbound journeys of migrating birds. Somehow, the birds have been able to sense storm paths and survive.

"This is not new to birds," Cliff Shackelford, an ornithologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said Friday as Hurricane Rita began lashing the central Gulf Coast. "Birds can detect things like barometric pressure, changes in wind. ... With a storm like Rita, so big it's covering the whole ... Gulf, they're not going to take that first step."

The Texas coast acts as a funnel for birds migrating from North American summer grounds to wintering havens in Central and South America. Bird watchers from around the world come to the region for glimpses of hundreds of species of birds.

Rita's northern trek countered peak migration for hawks, and her direction earlier in the week prompted an evacuation order that canceled Corpus Christi's annual Celebration of Flight.

"This is the largest hawk watch in the U.S., that's why we invite everybody out," festival organizer Joel Simon said. "We had 44,000 yesterday, which is a good day. We're hoping some more get through today before the storm."

The Texas tail is the convergence point for four major flyways, two of them coming west along the Gulf from East Texas and Louisiana. Hummingbirds have been coming through for weeks, Simon said, as well as songbirds, shorebirds and "pretty colored birds" like orioles, buntings, and warblers.

He said the hawks would be stressed but would likely find free skies to the west.

Scientists debate whether hurricanes are worsening due to global warming or whether the Gulf is just on the violent side of a repeating cycle. Either way, the biggest problem if the trend continues may be destruction of the already dwindling habitat of birds living year-round on the Gulf, such as the long-legged herons and egrets that wade in salty marshes.

"I'm more worries about the resident birds," Simon said. "They're not used to going anywhere."

09/23/05 19:22 EDT

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.