OSCODA – The cause behind the death of hundreds of migrating songbirds found along the shores of Lake Huron in Oscoda could be attributed to fierce fall storms over the lake.
AuSable Valley Audubon member Peggy Ridgway and other are investigating the bird die off incident in Oscoda, which Ridgway is calling an “once in a lifetime” event.
Ridgway said she first heard of the incident when she began receiving calls on Oct. 6 from people wondering why there were large amounts of dead birds along the Lake Huron shoreline.
She said the dead birds were found on the shore from Greenbush to just north of the F-41/US-23 intersection, around five to seven miles of shoreline. She said many of the birds have been picked apart by seagulls and other scavenger animals.
She said there is speculation right now by herself and bird researcher Caleb Putnam, a former National Audubon Society Important Birding Area coordinator, that the weather systems moving through the area caused the bird deaths.
“We speculate that when the massive cold front came in last week, the birds were out over the water migrating at night,” Ridgway said.
She said the birds are know to migrate in flocks – filled with random birds – over the lakes at night, returning to the shore during the daytime to rest and refuel on insects and other items.
According to Putnam and Ridgway, there is a possibility that the birds were struck by lightning, hit a massive storm updraft, or were taken out by hail stones and then were forced into the water, died, and floated to shore.
She said looking the dead birds it was determined that none of the animals were shore birds but warblers, juncos, woodpeckers, and other migrating songbirds.
According to Ridgway and Putnam an event like this is not entirely heard off. Putman said there were events, due to storms, recorded in the Chicago area.
“This autumn type of thing is not very heavily documented,” she said. “That is why they’re excited about it.”
Ridgway said in the documented cases it typically has happened during the spring migrations, but this time around it was during the autumn, which makes it rarer.
She said because the absence of people on the beach, such as tourists staying at summer cabins, there are few people to have perhaps observed the bird deaths.
As far as how many birds were killed in the incident, Ridgway said she was being extremely conservative when she gave an estimate of perhaps 200 birds. She said in many instances people have counted 30 to 40 birds on their walks along the lake-shore.
Putnam said similar instances of the bird deaths may have happened in the past, but further out from shore, meaning the bird carcasses would not have been able to float to shore and may have sank to the bottom of the lake.
He said he is working on looking at weather history, radar maps, and other information to see what the weather was like and whether it could have caused the deaths.
“When you can isolate it down to certain geography and a certain date and get in the radar archive, you and you may see the storm going through the flocks of migrating birds at night,” he said.
Putnam said in many cases flocks of birds are visible on radar. He said he is currently working to find evidence of what may have happened.
He said regardless of how the birds got into the water, it led to their doom, because once they are in, they would not be able to get back out.
“These guys do not do well in the water,” he said. “If they get down to the water, it’s almost certain death,” he said. “These are the same songbirds that you have in your back yard.”
In addition to Putnam’s research, he said some of the carcasses are going to a museum for possible testing and analysis on what happened to them.
Ridgway said she has been contacted by many in the community asking for answers. She said one thing to remember is it does not appear to be a bird kill caused by any pollution issues.
One of those individuals was Oscoda resident Martha Gottlieb, who discovered nearly 40 dead birds on the beach near her lake-front home after a neighbor told her about finding birds.
She said there were many birds of all different types along the beach and added that she had never seen anything like it in the many decades she has lived along the lake.
“I feel sad, super sad, it’s the first thing is you think of these poor little birds,” she said. “I have never seen it, and I’ve been up here for 60 years, but I’ve never seen that kind of bird kill, ever.”