(MIAMI) — Bird enthusiasts are flocking to see flamboyances of flamingos popping up all over the Eastern U.S. after they were blown in by Hurricane Idalia.
More than 150 of the pink wading birds have ended up in unlikely states like North and South Carolina, Virginia, and even Texas and Ohio, since Hurricane Idalia passed through the U.S. last week, experts told ABC News, describing the event as incredibly rare.
Idalia is the type of storm that bird watchers get excited for, “because you never know what kind of species it will bring with it,” Nate Swick, digital communications manager for the American Birding Association and host of the American Birding Podcast, told ABC News.
Typically, the species that get blown in are ocean-going birds, such as tube-nosed seabirds and terns, Swick said. Flamingos, a wading bird, are the last species bird watchers would have predicted.
“No one really expected that flamingos would be the bird that Idalia was known for,” Swick said.
Almost immediately after Idalia made landfall near Big Bend, Florida, on Aug. 30, birders began seeing reports of flamingos all over the state, Swick said. The reports soon extended all over the East, as far north as Ohio and as far west as Texas.
Flamingos were once native to Florida, but fashion trends at the turn of the 19th century meant they were hunted for their feathers for women’s fashion, Jerry Lorenz, state director of research for Audubon Florida, told ABC News.
They still show up to South Florida every once in a while to breed, but the goal is to restore the wetlands enough for them to return as permanent residents, Lorenz said.
These flamingos likely originated from the Yucatan Peninsula, Lorenz said. Birders were able to decipher a unique alphanumeric code on a flamingo that had been banded at Río Lagartos, a breeding colony in Mexico, Lorenz said.
The birds likely got caught in Hurricane Idalia as they were traveling across the Yucatan Peninsula, the experts said.
Birds that reside in the Caribbean have had to deal with tropical storm systems since the dawn of time, but the mechanisms in which they travel within the storm are unclear. The experts don’t know whether they are in flight or which part of the storm they travel in.
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, Swick said.
Another theory is that the birds flew continuously in the eye of the storm until it made landfall, an exhaustive feat either way, Lorenz said.
While rare, this incident is not the first time a flamingo has been blown into the U.S. by a storm system.
In 2019, after Hurricane Barry made landfall on the northern Gulf Coast, a handful of flamingos were blown northward up the Mississippi River and found in Tennessee and Missouri, Swick said.
A bird that never made it back to its original home has been living at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge on the Florida Panhandle ever since, the experts said.
But birders have never seen an invasion of flamingos in these numbers, Swick said
“It’s been pretty phenomenal,” Swick said.
The excitement over flamingo sightings among the birding community has been “palpable,” Lorenz said.
A birder in North Carolina found the first flock of wild flamingos ever spotted in the state — in salt marshes in the Outer Banks, exactly where he expected to find them, because they are attracted to large bodies of water, Swick said.
Those flamingos were still being spotted in the Outer Banks as of Tuesday, Swick said.
For some of the birds who caught a ride on Hurricane Idalia, it may be a one-way journey. But flamingos are capable flyers and can travel for long distances, so they will likely soon return home.
“The hope is that a lot of these birds are close enough to their breeding grounds that they’ll be able to return there,” Swick said.
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