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In much of the world, winter is a season to study waterfowl, and if you have access to a large body of water (ocean, large lake, or river), it’s worth looking for waterfowl during storms. This has the potential for some of the most exciting bird sightings.
Birds sense the lower pressure of a storm and respond by searching for food. Strong winds make it difficult or impossible for birds to rest on the water, so they congregate on beaches, open fields, or parking lots where they can rest, or they simply fly. Seabirds have adapted to the wind, so windy conditions (up to a point) might be preferable, as the wind allows them to travel faster with less effort. And strong waves along the shore can stir up sand and mud there and create a food bonanza for gulls and other birds. All of this means that storms make waterbirds more active and visible.
If you observe birds like gulls in strong winds, it is important to keep in mind that their flight style changes in these conditions. The shapes, proportions and movements of gulls that you are used to on lazy summer days at the beach will be replaced by a very different appearance during a storm.
Changes in flight style are similar to what birds do when they choose to fly at high speed – for example, when hunting or being chased, or when traveling with some urgency. You can see it once in a while even in calm air, but during a storm, with the air moving so fast, all the birds have to be flying at high speeds all the time.
In general, they look sleeker, more powerful and more angular in strong winds. The wings are drawn closer to the body and steeply angled at the wrist. This makes the wings thinner and more pointed. The body feathers are gently pressed and the head and tail held firmly in line with the body, forming an elegant torpedo shape.
Watch for these flight mode and speed changes whenever you see birds flying, and if you are able to experience birding during a storm, pay attention to how birds fly differently.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.
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