MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Hurricanes are not just tough on people; they're also tough on wildlife, especially birds but when Hurricane Irma pushed several of species of birds that are normally found at sea far inland into Alabama, one of them was a rare species never before recorded in the state.
At least three Black-Capped Petrels were found in Alabama following Hurricane Irma. Sadly, all three were injured and battered by the storm, and despite the best efforts of the Alabama Wildlife Center to rehabilitate them, only one has survived. (A fourth bird was reportedly found dead.)
I recently wrote about Irma forcing many species of birds that are normally seen only at sea or along coastlines far inland to such places as Wheeler Dam in North Alabama or West Point Lake in Chambers County. Among them were Sooty Terns, Band-Rumped Storm Petrels, Long-Tailed Jaegers and a Magnificent Frigatebird.
The Black-Capped Petrels found in Randolph, Madison, and Etowah counties were the first reports of this endangered species in the state.
Dr. Greg Jackson of Birmingham leads the Alabama Birds Records Committee, an arm of the Alabama Ornithological Society. The ABRC documents the occurrence of unusual birds in Alabama, and its seven members review reports of rare bird sightings and vote on admission to the official state list of Alabama birds. (The count now stands at 446 species, although a few are now believed to be extinct.) Jackson visited the Alabama Wildlife Center to document the Black-Capped Petrels.
"Before Irma, Alabama had no records of this species, and only a handful have been recorded in the Gulf of Mexico, so it was important that this occurrence is documented well for the state archives," Jackson said.
He said the threatened species probably has a population of 5,000 or fewer individuals, with the main breeding population in the high mountains of the island of Hispaniola, and with smaller numbers breeding in Dominica.
The species is regularly seen on ocean-going birding trips off the East Coast, especially from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, he said.
Black-Capped Petrels were once abundant, but the loss of habitat and introduced predators such as rats, cats and dogs dramatically caused their numbers to drop to the point that by 1850 they were thought to be extinct. The species spends most of its life at sea except for breeding season.
Doug Adair, director of the Alabama Wildlife Center, said, "It was an amazing experience for the Alabama Wildlife Center to be able to care for the first Black-Capped Petrels ever seen in Alabama. Although the Petrels were exhausted and in pretty rough shape after battling the hurricane, AWC was very pleased to be able to save a Black-Capped Petrel and facilitate her release back into the wild."
Adair said a concerned person in Woodward in Madison County found one bird and brought it to the center, while the birds from Randolph and Etowah counties were brought to the center by state conservation officers.
"Sadly, we were able to save only one Petrel to be released back into the wild, the bird that was rescued in Madison County," Adair said.
He said the wildlife center worked with the Wildlife Center and Educational Network to transport the surviving petrel to BEAKS, (Bird Emergency Aid & Kare Sanctuary) on Big Talbot Island off of Florida's Atlantic coast. He said it is an outstanding facility with experience dealing with Black-Capped Petrels and releasing them back into the wild.
Jackson said the Alabama Wildlife Center "does a tremendous job rehabilitating injured and sick wild birds."
"I believe they told us they had already cared for about 2,000 birds so far this year. This is the main site of care for wild birds from the north and central Alabama," Jackson said. "Environmental education has become an important aspect of their work, too, with many demonstrations and talks given at the center and around the state."
Jackson said, "The Alabama Wildlife Center is a special place and deserves our support." He urged the public to visit the center, located in Oak Mountain State Park, and visit its website.
"Memberships and donations are needed and appreciated," Jackson said.
I echo the need for nature lovers and birders to support the Alabama Wildlife Center and its work, which I have written about several times previously.
--The Alabama Ornithological Society holds its fall meeting each year on Dauphin Island, one of the best sites to see fall and spring migratory birds and shorebirds in the United States. This year the meeting is Oct. 13 through 15.
While the meeting is for AOS members, it only costs $25 per year to join. That entitled birders to attend AOS fall and spring meetings on Dauphin Island and a winter meeting elsewhere around the state. Registration and banquet fees for the meetings are modest as well.
Each of those meetings includes several birding field trips and knowledgeable speakers. Membership also entitles you to a copy of the group's newsletter, The Yellowhammer, as well as other occasional publications on birding. Best of all, it allows those interested in birding to interact with some of the best informed birders in Alabama and to be part of an organization that promotes birding and nature protection.
The featured speaker for this year's meeting will be Dr. Frank R. Moore, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Southern Mississippi University. He will speak on bird migration. Field trips during the weekend will be led by Andrew Haffenden, who leads birding trips around the world and who makes Dauphin Island his home. Sign up for the meeting at the AOS website.
-- The North Alabama Birdwatchers Society has announced its full schedule of field trips from now through May 2018.
-- The Birmingham Audubon Society also has many field trips each year, and several of them are well out of the Birmingham area. Despite its name, Birmingham Audubon is really a statewide organization, supporting ornithological research around Alabama. It also has several outstanding seminars on nature and birding during the year. Its website is: birminghamaudubon.org
-- The Alabama Birding Trails web page has a comprehensive list of upcoming birding and nature-related activities around the state that is much more detailed than space allows here. Most of the activities are open to the public and many are free. See it at alabamabirdingtrails.com
Ken Hare is a retired newspaper editor and writer who now writes for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at firstname.lastname@example.org. To see other columns, go to Ken's page.