In an extraordinary display of nature’s power, Hurricane Idalia, which recently devastated parts of the United States, pushed flamingos out of eastern Mexico into states as far north as Ohio.
Scientists believe the flamingos were on their migratory path between Cuba and the Yucatan when they got swept up by the intense winds of Idalia. “We have never seen anything like this,” said Jerry Lorenz, the state director of research for Audubon Florida.
As Hurricane Idalia tore through the Caribbean sea and hit Florida, flamingos began appearing in its wake. They were first spotted in Florida, a state where their presence has become exceedingly rare due to hunting.
Flamingo sightings soon spread from Georgia to the Carolinas, Virginia, and even inland states like Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, and Ohio. Following the trajectory of the hurricane, the locations of these sightings almost mapped the storm’s path.
“It’s just really surprising that if you follow the path of Idalia, it really does kind of fall out to the north and south of that central track,” said Lorenz.
Florida, despite being emblematic for these birds, is home to only one percent of the global flamingo population. The appearance of “flamboyances” (a term used to describe a group of flamingos) was an astonishing sight to locals.
Lorenz told the media: “We will get a flamingo or two following storms but this is really unprecedented.”
A particularly noteworthy sighting occurred at the scenic Caesar Creek Park lake, near Waynesville in southwest Ohio. Here, an adult and a juvenile flamingo were observed “just hanging out and sleeping in about a foot of water near the shore,” according to eyewitness Jacob Roalef.
With over 150 flamingos displaced by Idalia’s powerful winds, their well-being and return have become a topic of discussion among experts and bird enthusiasts.
While Lorenz assures that the resilient flamingos are capable of flying thousands of miles and should have no issues returning before the onset of the winter season, he urges bird-watchers to exercise caution. “These birds are stressed right now. They just went through a terrible ordeal.”
Nate Swick from the American Birding Association told ABC News that Hurricane Idalia was the kind of storm that bird watchers dream of “because you never know what kind of species it will bring with it.”
While ocean-going birds like terns are commonly associated with such storms, flamingos were a surprise. “No one really expected that flamingos would be the bird that Idalia was known for,” Swick told ABC News.
One particular flamingo was identified by a unique alphanumeric code, which traced back to Río Lagartos, a breeding colony in Mexico. This confirmed that the birds were from the Yucatan Peninsula.
The experts do not know how birds travel within a storm. One theory is that flocks get caught up in the front edge of the storm, in the northwest quadrant, which meteorologists refer to as “the dirty side” of the storm due to the stronger winds, said Swick.
He told NPR that the birds were likely either in Yucatan or on their way to Cuba when the storm hit them. The flamingos went with the winds instead of fighting against them, as the eastern portion of the storm drove the birds up the western side of Florida.
Swick noted to NPR that flamingos are big, strong birds, more than capable of making their way back home – like they did in 2019 following Hurricane Barry. That particular storm pushed a handful of flamingos into western Tennessee and Missouri.
“They kind of hung around there for a little while, and then eventually started making their way back,” Swick told NPR. “I think the flamingos are likely to start heading towards the coast, whether or not they know which direction to go, I don’t know. Birds are capable of things that we cannot imagine.”
Historically, flamingos were native to Florida but were hunted extensively in the 19th century for their feathers, which were coveted in women’s fashion.
Lorenz spoke about the occasional flamingos that visit South Florida for breeding purposes, emphasizing the efforts to rejuvenate wetlands for their permanent return.
This is not the first instance of flamingos being rerouted by storm systems, but the sheer numbers observed post-Hurricane Idalia are unprecedented. As Greg Neise of the American Birding Association noted, “It’s been pretty phenomenal.”
Birders are reveling in the unexpected opportunity to observe the flamingos in the United States. While many of the birds may soon find their way back home, their brief visit will be remembered for years to come.
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