Hurricane Gonzalo – Big Waves, No Birds

Hurricane birding at Cape Race. The weather cleared quickly as Gonzalo churned past just east of us, but the waves were spectacular!

Hurricane birding at Cape Race. The weather cleared quickly as Gonzalo churned past just east of us, but the waves were spectacular!

It was 0530 this morning when Ian Jones and Bruce Mactavish (aka “one of North America’s most renowned birders”!) picked me up at home. Hurricane Gonzalo was churning just SE of Newfoundland and radar indicated it would zip past Cape Race in just over an hour. Our plan was to meet it there!

Gonzalo, still a Category 1 hurricane, ripped by just miles east of Cape Race in the early morning hours of Sunday, October 20. We were there to meet it.

Gonzalo, still a Category 1 hurricane, ripped by just miles east of Cape Race in the early morning hours of Sunday, October 20. We were there to meet it.

It was a two hour run, and we made great time considering the driving, horizontal rain. The winds were picking up fast, first gusting from the east and north east as the storm approached us, but by the time we reached Portugal Cove South (just 21 km from Cape Race), they had switched around to the northwest – a clear indication that the eye had passed north of us.

Long story short, we arrived at Cape Race to clearing weather and high winds (gusting to 100km/h). We spent the next few hours scanning the water hoping for subtropical seabirds dragged up by Gonzalo, but were sadly disappointed. Good numbers of local seabirds like Northern Gannet, Black-legged Kittiwake and White-winged Scoter were battling the wind and waves, but nothing out of the ordinary. Later in the day we checked out points further west and southwest – Cripple Cove, Portugal Cove South, Trepassey, St. Shott’s and Point LaHaye — all offering up the same disappointing results.

Two significant, and disappointing, factors made Hurricane a bust when it came to birds. First, they eye of the hurricane passed by just east of Cape Race instead of making landfall. Any subtropical seabirds in its midst may have carried on NE with the storm rather than falling out along our coast. Secondly, while the winds looked good initially (see the 3am windmap above), they quickly turned to the northwest as the eye passed Cape Race (see 9am windmap), resulting in offshore winds that would have kept seabirds offshore and out of our sight.

Two significant, and disappointing, factors made Hurricane a bust when it came to birds. First, they eye of the hurricane passed by just east of Cape Race instead of making landfall. Any subtropical seabirds in its midst may have carried on NE with the storm rather than falling out along our coast. Secondly, while the winds looked good initially (see the 3am windmap above), they quickly turned to the northwest as the eye passed Cape Race (see 9am windmap), resulting in offshore winds that would have kept seabirds offshore and out of our sight.

However, the wave action was incredible, with waves that must have been 15+ metres at times rolling, breaking and crashing in spectacular fashion. This is one of the most amazing coastlines in the world, and seeing it in this way just made it better!

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Cape Race shortly after sunrise and the passing of Hurricane Gonzalo.

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Bruce Mactavish (“one of North America’s most renowned birders”) enjoys the action.

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Ian Jones trying to see some rare seabirds through a wall of water!

These pics may be a bit deceiving – but our vantage for these photos was actually on a clifftop probably 10+ metres above sea level, and the waves were often crashing above our eye level!!IMG_9448 IMG_9456 IMG_9457 IMG_9473 IMG_9491 IMG_9492 IMG_9502 IMG_9512 IMG_9518 IMG_9525 IMG_9531 IMG_9543 IMG_9545 IMG_9554 IMG_9571 IMG_9575 IMG_9580 IMG_9604 IMG_9607 IMG_9629 IMG_9637 IMG_9662 IMG_9676 IMG_9677 IMG_9687 IMG_9695 IMG_9698 IMG_9737 IMG_9754

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Storm a-brewin’ (Gonzalo)

B0JBa6OIQAA8dKQLike most places, weather is often the topic of conversation in Newfoundland. And never more than when a storm is barreling at us. Gonzalo, which as I write is currently a Category 4 hurricane bearing down on Bermuda ~2000 km SSW of us, is the talk of the town this week.

Forecast track of Hurricane Gonzalo (as of this morning, Fri Oct 17).

Forecast track of Hurricane Gonzalo (as of this morning, Fri Oct 17).

Hurricane Gonzalo is the largest hurricane this season, and the first to reach Category 4 status since 2011 (Ophelia). It is a monster that is forecast to continue churning NNE, with most models predicting it will weaken to a Category 1 hurricane or tropical storm before passing just SE of Cape Race early Sunday morning. That track will likely spare us the worst of the damaging winds (which are east of the eye), but we can still expect substantial rain. With memories of the damage caused by Hurricane Igor still fresh in most people’s minds, many people in eastern Newfoundland are feeling a little trepidation. Igor took an eerily similar path as Gonzalo is predicted to make, making landfall near Cape Race on September 21, 2010. At least one model is still holding out on a more westerly path, taking the eye of Gonzalo over land, as well. (Fortunately, some meteorological difference between these two storms suggest that Gonzalo may not pack the same destructive punch as Igor even if it does make landfall.)

According the the National Hurricane Centre (NHC), there is currently a 20-40% chance of tropical storm-force winds over the Avalon Peninsula on Sunday morning. Combined with heavy rain, we could be in for some nasty weather!

According the the National Hurricane Centre (NHC), there is currently a 20-40% chance of tropical storm-force winds over the Avalon Peninsula on Sunday morning. Combined with heavy rain, we could be in for some nasty weather!

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The track taken by Hurricane Igor in September 2010. This was the most destructive hurricane on record in Newfoundland, causing one death and resulting in ~$200 million in damages.

While no one in their right mind (or me, for that matter!) would hope for a threatening storm like this to hit the island, hurricanes do peak the interest of birders. The strong cyclonic winds are known for picking up and carrying birds to far-flung places, and the remnants of hurricanes and tropical storms have a history of dropping off major rarities in the Maritimes and Newfoundland. In terms of potential for rare birds, I would probably prefer a hurricane that swings much further west before reaching Newfoundland, skimming the eastern seaboard of the United States and picking up an abundance of birds like gulls, terns and seabirds. (Larger, strong flying birds like these are best known for arriving after a hurricane … smaller birds are not likely picked up as easily, or at least do not survive the wicked ride). Hurricane Helene took such a path in September 1958, dropping off dozens of Black Skimmers at Burgeo – the only record for the province. Hurricane Wilma (October 2005) was credited with bringing large numbers of Chimney Swift, Swallows, two dozen Laughing Gulls, two Franklin’s Gulls, a Gull-billed Tern and a Black-necked Stilt to southern portions of the island. As often happens, the Maritimes received an even larger number and array of storm waifs – including several Magnificent Frigatebirds!

The more westerly track of Hurricane Helene, which brought dozens of Black Skimmers to Newfoundland ... and who knows what else?!?! Very few hurricanes have a trajectory like this.

The more westerly track of Hurricane Helene, which brought dozens of Black Skimmers to Newfoundland … and who knows what else?!?! Very few hurricanes have a trajectory like this.

Hurricanes like Gonzalo, which stay well out to sea, have less potential for bringing large numbers of such birds. They do, however, have an opportunity to pick up a variety of seabirds that would make my mouth water. Passing over Bermuda and tropical Atlantic waters, gems like Tropicbirds (White-tailed and Red-billed), pterodroma Petrels, and pelagic terns are not out of the question. Hurricane Florence, which took a path similar to Gonzalo’s in 2006, brought a White-tailed Tropicbird (found dead just 300m from my university office at the time!) and the province’s third ever Least Tern (found by a team of birders that included yours truly!). Other storm taking similar paths have turned out to be a bust, producing little or nothing in the way of unexpected birds.

I think I'd vomit if I saw one of these fly over my head following the hurricane on Sunday, but it's a real possibility. Whether I'll get out to look for one is another question! (Photo taken in Hawaii)

I think I’d vomit if I saw one of these fly over my head following the hurricane on Sunday, but it’s a real possibility. Whether I’ll get out to look for one is another question! (Photo taken in Hawaii)

What will Gonzalo bring?!?! Let’s hope for great birds and no damage, eh?