Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Reverse Engineering a Historical Birding Event

This note was published in The Wood Duck -

Holden, B.R. 2014. Reverse Engineering an Historical Birding Event. The Wood Duck 68(3):7-8.

The whole issue of The Wood Duck can be seen here: 

Normally I'd scan a print copy and put it on my website, but my website is currently out of action - so I figured this would be the next best thing..


I have a serious interest in meteorology, and I blame it all on the birds. Through various experiences in the field, there seemed to be a correlation between great birding days and the weather. The more I’ve learned, the more I’ve enjoyed it - and while nothing will rival my appetite for birding; studying the weather has become a significant hobby. 

A fun past time involves searching for notable historical birding events, and then trying to find the corresponding weather charts. In several situations, I can find very little - but occasional surprises turn up. I will spare the details of many past situations that have had varying levels of success, and instead focus on one of the most remarkable bird observations in the birding records of the Hamilton Study Area. In fact, I’ll let Bob Curry’s superb Birds of Hamilton (2006) detail the ornithological side of the story (pg 245):

“On 25 November 1950, a very severe northeast gale reaching back to the Gulf of St. Lawrence caused great damage to the shores of Lake Ontario and also brought a flight of murres (Beardslee & Mitchell 1965). George North (1982) wrote about this event:

On November 26, 1950 there was a terrific easterly gale at Hamilton, On stopping my bicycle for a few moments at the foot of Bay Street I saw a Laughing Gull and a Kittiwake fly by on the wind. So in Toronto on November 28th I suggested to Bill Gunn that we drive along the west shore of Lake Ontario to see if any other oceanic birds had been blown in by the storm. … At Port Credit we were delighted to see a Thick-billed Murre on the water close to shore. At Lorne Park we were amazed to see flocks of Thick-billed Murres flying south-westerly along the shore; some even flew overhead in V formation like geese. Continuing along the lakeshore we kept seeing more murres till at Bronte we had counted 140; probably many more times that had flown by that day

140 Thick-billed Murre’s! In Hamilton! In one day! I could hardly imagine just how spectacular the easterly gale must have been.The account also detailed Mr. North’s encounter with a Laughing Gull during the same storm - a gull of southerly beaches in the USA. My weather instincts immediately brought me to the wikipedia page for the 1950 Atlantic Hurricane Season. Hurricanes are famous for their ability to transport remarkable birds to far flung locations, but there were no tropical systems in the records to explain these sightings. Using superior intellect, I plugged “November 1950 storm” into the google search engine, and my answer appeared 0.34 seconds later. Wikipedia can say it far better than I, so once again I’ll provide a quote:

“The Great Appalachian Storm of November 1950 was a large extratropical cyclone which moved through the Eastern United States, causing significant winds, heavy rains east of the Appalachians, and blizzard conditions along the western slopes of the mountain chain. Hurricane-force winds, peaking at 110 miles per hour (180 km/h) in Concord, New Hampshire and 160 miles per hour (260 km/h) in the New England highlands”

“The cyclone initially formed in southeast North Carolina near a cold front on the morning of November 24 as the main cyclone over the Great Lakes weakened. Rapid development ensued … and the cyclone bombed while moving north through Washington D.C. the next morning. … By the evening of November 25, the cyclone retrograded, or moved northwestward, into Ohio due to a blocking ridge up across eastern Canada. … The cyclone moved west over Lake Erie to the north of the upper cyclone before looping over Ohio” 

As it turns out, the Great Appalachian Storm was a particularly devastating extratropical cyclone. One of the stronger systems ever recorded at this time of year (in North America), Toronto received over 30cm of Snow; with several exceptional readings for cold temperature, precipitation and wind speeds recorded from Alabama, through Florida, the entire coastline north to New Hampshire and inland to Ohio. In fact, it caused US$66.7 million dollars worth of damage (1950 figures) by the time it was all said and done. With Mr. North’s observations occurring on 28 November 1950, I can only help but wonder what todays hoards of Hamilton area birders would turn up under similar circumstances, armed with our collections of modern optics and digital cameras. All in all, a highly successful attempt to “reverse engineer” a historical birding event. Figure 1 shows the remarkable storm near peak intensity, below 980mb. If I ever see anything like this in the future, I’ll be one “sick day” away from some spectacular birding!

Figure 1. The Great Appalachian Storm near peak intensity (978mb-980mb) on 26 November 1950 (Wikipedia 2014). 


Beardslee C.S. and H. D. Mitchell. 1965. Birds of the Niagara Frontier Region: An annotated check-list. Bulletin of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences, vol 22. 478pp. 

Curry, R. 2006. Birds of Hamilton and Surrounding Areas. Hamilton Naturalists’ Club. 647pp. 

North G.W. 1982. Thick-billed Murre. Wood Duck 36(7):119. 

Wikipedia. 2014. “Great Appalachian Storm of November 1950” retrieved from Wikimedia Foundation, accessed by Brandon Holden on 27 September 2014. 


  1. Amazing!
    Can't wait for the next one :p

  2. Sorta related, but I've wondered about searching through old photographs of these storms. Might find a rarity (for example, a sooty tern in a photo taken in MA) in the background.