The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, August 17, 2003

One More Hurricane Claudette Tale
Ro Wauer, August 10, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

There are hundreds of stories about Hurricane Claudette's passage across the Golden Crescent. Most relate to her unusual behavior and resultant damages. She was only a "tropical storm" while moving westward across the Gulf, but changed to a Class 1 Hurricane about when she made landfall, and her wind speed apparently increased. Most hurricane winds decline once over land.

Claudette passed directly across the coastal area near Port O'Connor, where she raised havoc by knocking out the power, tearing up considerable vegetation, and damaging numerous buildings. Port O'Connor residents mostly stayed put, yet there have been no deaths or serious injuries reported. But for some residents, such as friends Ladd and Petra Hockey and Brush Freeman, the storm provided what may have been a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience Mother Nature up close and personal.

Brush posted a note to Tex-Birds (www.texbirds.org) a day afterwards, explaining that when "the eye of the storm passed directly over us, the winds went from 100 mph to near 0 mph within just a few minutes. The sun broke out with clear, very blue skies and became very hot with tons of mosquitoes." For the next 45 to 60 minutes the three birders scanned the bay for birds. Although the bay waters were still in turmoil, the area was "full of flying birds and oddly hundred of black witches (a huge moth)."

They recorded numerous bird species that normally never come close to shore. These included a large shearwater, either a Cory's or greater at a distance, a positive Cory's shearwater; 2 Audubon's shearwaters; several unidentified storm-petrels; 2 black-backed terns (bridled or sooty); and 2 or 3 unidentified jaegers, one probable a pomarine. All of these are pelagics, seabirds that very, very rarely ever are seen from shore. They spend their lives at sea, except when nesting on small isolated islands off the Continents. The remainder of their time is spent on the oceans where they feed principally on fish and squid.

The next day they recorded numerous frigatebirds or man-o-war birds, perhaps as many of 50 of these huge seabirds. Also pelagic, frigatebirds do occur somewhat regularly along the Texas coast in summer. They nest in mangrove areas in coastal Mexico and come north afterwards. A few may remain off the Central Texas Coast until early winter. The names were derived from their habit of piracy, chasing down smaller birds carrying prey to make them drop their catch, which they then scoop up off the surface. Frigatebirds also are known as "hurricane birds" because of their habit of appearing over land just prior to storms at sea. Frigatebirds are huge, with a wingspan of 90 or more inches, an extremely long bill with a dangerous-looking hook, and a long deeply forked tail.

Brush reported hundreds or black witches (Ascalapha odorata) flying in the eye of the storm. Scanning the bay with a spotting scope, they noted several in every scope view. On land, they found black witches in "the remaining trees and bushes, under the houses; they were literally everywhere." Dozens of landbirds, such as nighthawks and scissor-tailed flycatchers, were chasing down and feeding on these moths. Brush mentioned that some of the nighthawks were flying far out over the bay, behavior not normally expected. The black witches apparently were providing marvelous food for the stressed birds. What a surprise, because the abundance of black witches on a normal year amounts only to three or four black witches found at Port O'Connor.

Later in the evening, Brush experienced black witches on a more personal basis. He wrote that they had several of these moths flying close around them. "We discovered that pouring a bit of beer into our palms had them come in like small dogs, land of our hands and lap up the beer with their long tongues [proboscis]. We don't know whether these moths came in with the storm or what...It was most curious."

Strange occurrences are the norm during hurricane episodes. It is very possible that the multitude of black witches, a true migratory moth, were picked up by the storm in Mexico's Yucatan and carried across the Gulf to Texas.

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