What is in the eye of the hurricane?
One of the odder developments emerging out of Hurricane Matthew is the presence of flocks of birds flying inside its eye.
That’s right. Birds.
Satellite images and radar show what appears to be clutter in the calm eye of the storm; but, in reality it is huge flocks of seagulls and other birds that fly into the hurricane’s spiral and move toward the eye, where the winds are calm. Then they just go with the flow.
It’s a common occurrence, said John Farley, meteorologist for WOLO television station in Columbia.
“As the eye gets going, they get trapped,” he said. “This eye might be 30 miles across; the bigger ones can be 60 or 70 miles. And inside, it’s relatively calm.”
The internet is filled with stories about the trapped birds. But that’s the internet.
Here’s what the vaunted Audubon Society has to say about it.
“Any day in late August, September, or October, vast numbers of little birds are heading southward during hurricane season,” the organization’s website said. “When they fly into one of these systems, they have no way of detecting what’s ahead.”
“The birds get into the end of the hurricane’s spiral,” it said. “They may not necessarily do that in any organized way; more likely they’re out there in all this wild wind and when they chance into the calm of the eye, they may make an effort to stay there and travel with it rather than fighting the winds again.”
Brandon Heitkamp is resource manager at Audubon South Carolina’s Silver Bluff Audubon Center and Sanctuary in Jackson. He said that when birds migrate, they configure their flight to have a tail wind. When that tail wind spins into a hurricane, it’s very likely the birds could be sucked into the eye.
Ornithologist Sidney A. Gauthreaux Jr., a professor emeritus at Clemson University who now lives on Edisto Island, specializes in using radar to identify birds in the air. He said radar shows hundreds of birds who have been trapped in Hurricane Matthew.
He added that even the layman can see birds on the radar in their local weather broadcasts.
“Any clutter in the eye of the hurricane is either bird or insects, because there is no rain in the eye,” he said. “And what you see is probably birds because they are just big bags of water” that show up prominently on radar.
The birds might have to fly thousands of miles before the storm calms enough for them to get out, the experts said.
Heitkamp added many birds fly that far when migrating.
“They are capable, yes,” he said. “But statistically they’re not all going to make it.”
Many storms, hurricane or not, “can get birds where they really don’t want to be,” Heitcamp said. “So you can get sighting of birds that are not native to areas.”
For instance, he said, a storm once moved snowy owls from the upper United States and Canada to North Carolina. That’s nirvana for bird watchers, he said, who follow storms, especially hurricanes, with the hope of marking a few new species off their bucket lists.
“Some birders came in yesterday and today hoping to see something unique,” Heitcamp said. “But with so much wind it’s been difficult. It’s hard to see birds when the trees are moving back and forth so much.”