Weathering The Storm

Current events in Florida have me thinking about storms and survival for both humans and birds.

In July of 2011 I experienced a hailstorm at Montana’s Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge that I won’t soon forget, largely for its impact on birds but it was very impressive on its own merits. I’ve posted about this event previously but all but one of these images is new to my blog.


I was sitting in my pickup at Lower Red Rock Lake photographing avocets and phalaropes when I noticed a very dark storm approaching from the west. When it arrived it started out as rain but over the next 75 minutes it turned to hail several times. This photo was taken at only 41mm but I’d been photographing the American Avocets you (barely) see at left-center of the shore with my 500mm lens.



The first wave of hail was fairly brief and for a short time the sun actually came out and produced a rainbow but the reprieve from the storm was only the calm in the “eye of the hurricane”. To give you a perspective of where I often camp while I’m at the refuge, that larger white object next to the two old outhouses in the far distance is my camping trailer.



The next wave of hail arrived with a fury. Here we see impact spouts on the water and the avocets were obviously terrified. They alternately took to the air and flew in tight circles…




and landed to hunker down. I think they realized on some level that there was nothing they could do to escape the stinging hail so they just endured it. Many much smaller Wilson’s Phalaropes took cover in the grasses behind them (they’re in there, we just can’t see them) but apparently it wasn’t an effective strategy for the much larger avocets with their very long legs.

They stood in the pummeling hail with no place to go to escape it for what seemed like an eternity. My empathy for them was intense, especially since inside my pickup the hail sounded like Armageddon. But as far as I could tell there were no serious injuries and when the hail eventually…



turned to only rain the avocets began to almost jauntily return to the water. Their body language and general demeanor seemed to suggest they were celebrating their survival.



Then they took to the air while it was still raining…



and continued the celebration by flying in a flock in tight circles for some time.



Here we see them in flight in the far distance seeming to revel in another rainbow and their good fortune.



Even the phalaropes came out of their sanctuary in the grasses and joined in the fun with the rainbow behind them.


My thoughts turned to this storm because of hurricane Irma and the devastation she’s wreaking on Florida and Floridians as I type this. Personally I’ve never experienced a hurricane but I’ve endured hurricane-force winds many times. I grew up in Cut Bank, Montana where 100+ mph winds aren’t all that unusual. Nearby Heart Butte has recorded winds of 133 mph and the state record for wind speed, 143 mph, occurred near Choteau which isn’t too far from Cut Bank.

During one of our incredible wind events in Cut Bank when I was a youngster I remember thinking the end of the world had come but of course there’s no comparison to Irma and what Floridians are enduring right now. We had no storm surge and when it was over it was over. Relatively little damage had been done and we just went on with our lives.

After Irma many will be trying to rebuild their lives for years and others will likely perish in the storm. And I suspect there will be unforeseen and tragic consequences, possibly for decades (I can’t help but worry about all those nuclear power plants in the state).

My heart aches for Floridians and others in Irma’s path. May there be rainbows in their future…





32 comments to Weathering The Storm

  • Gail Rich

    I particularly enjoyed the phalaropes against the rainbow! I live in Florida, but I am sheltering in a wildlife refuge in Alabama. Cattle Egrets and a quick glimpse of a hawk so far.

  • Echoing your final sentence.
    My heart goes out to those in Irma’s path, those who endured Harvey, and for the many millions impacted by flooding in Asia.

  • April Olson

    Beautiful photos. I love the rainbow behind the Phalaropes. This is an interesting article on how birds handle hurricanes.

    I hope people and animals fare for the better in Florida.

  • Jean Haley

    Beautiful pictures Ron. This morning I too was thinking of the birds in Florida. I saw a few Pelicans walking around. Hope they can get out of harms way in time.

  • Joanne OBrien

    Beautiful photographs. I especially appreciated the happy ending! My heart is with all the Floridians now… Especially with my brother who is riding out the storm in Sarasota area.

  • Pat Henson

    Thanks for this post and the lovely sentiment. It is so hard to comprehend the destruction of Irma. A few years ago my neighborhood (north of Phoenix) experienced a severe storm and 65 mph winds. All 3 of my trees came down. Mesquites and palo verdes are not built for such winds. I30 mph is unthinkable!

    • I hadn’t thought about desert trees not being adapted to high winds, Pat. Makes sense though. And I imagine sandy soil doesn’t anchor them very well.

      • Pat Henson

        Ron, homeowners most often fail to thin out the trees which can grow wide and dense to enable the wind to go through the branches. In addition, once a tree matures the drip system needs to stop water to those trees. I hadn’t thinned out my trees. Mea Culpa!

  • Wonderful post, Ron. And, of course, timely. We’re about an hour east of Tampa and just beginning to get some of Irma’s advance bands of rain. Not much wind. That will change after sunset. I can’t imagine birds being hit by hailstones as I have some painful memories of those rocks disguised as ice.

    Went birding the past three mornings. Pretty quiet. We had been seeing a few migrants every day, but didn’t see any on these three mornings so maybe they’ve found a good spot to hunker down. Hope so.

    Thank you again for the post. That rainbow reminds us all to never give up as there is always hope!

    (See you after the Hurricane Party!)

    • I wish you luck, Wally. Being relatively close to Tampa would get my attention in this storm. I hope your party is a great one and you can celebrate little to no damage.

  • Susan Stone

    Beautiful narrative and photos of that hail storm. In the shot where the Avocets are celebrating with the rainbow, I had to zoom in to even hope to see them. I have been amazed at how birds just seem to accept what is, unlike us emotional humans. I’ve lived through several hurricanes, mostly after they’ve come inland and calmed down somewhat. However, when hurricane Ernesto came through Virginia Beach a number of years ago, I was in a beach house right there on the beach. It was a comparatively small storm, and the main effect we saw that was it transferred the sand from the beach to the road. My heart goes out to all my friends who live in Florida, and everyone else there. I, too, wish that our present government would somehow come to understand that climate change is real and happening to us. These extreme storms aren’t just happenstance.

  • Patty Chadwick

    People, animals, birds, trees,other plsnts….pummeled beyond belief…so much danger, so much destruction, so much fear, so much suffering, so many lives large and small lost….many friends and family in danger. Members of my family have been there since 1926…hard to think of anything else…

  • Powerful images Ron! I think we often forget that other species also suffer from dangerous weather. Some of those hailstones look big enough to kill an Avocet easily. As they hunkered down I am sure each one was wondering if their time had come, would they be unlucky to be hit by big hailstone?

    I am not sure you experienced this in the hailstorm, …, when the hailstones become very large the frequency of them hitting slows down a lot and the change in the sound is eerie and scary to experience.

  • Charlotte Norton

    Amazing series Ron!


  • Judy Gusick

    Impressive! Nowhere to hide during something like that for sure. 🙁 Being in north central MT we get our fair share of hail and wind tho not the wind you get/have gotten up on the hi line. Never been in a hurricane and hope never to be. Ridiculous 69 degrees this morning and smoke -extremes for sure with the weather just in the US. Neighbors may have to head to Florida this coming week to help family with clean up even tho they are in the northern part of the state. I too hope everyone experiencing Irma can stay safe.

  • Dick Harlow

    I have admired for a long time the ability of birds to deal with bad to horrific weather. They have little choice but to deal with it. This is a great post, especially since we in the East are watching 24/7 the coverage of Hurricane Irma. Been through a lot of hurricanes in 81 years living on the East Coast, but this one appears to be one of the worst ones yet.
    What should get our attention is how Mother Nature/Climate is changing. Two Category 4 hurricanes hitting the US in one year! Really? Who would have believed that a year or two ago? Even, some predicted it would happen! Wish our present government would listen!
    Thanks for the post!

  • Marty K

    Your series definitely caught the emotions (for lack of a better word ot 4:30 am) of these poor birds. I can feel the panic and then their resignation to just riding out the hail. The phalaropes against the rainbow is a lovely shot.

    I know this is heavy anthropomorphising, but I wonder if Mother Nture is trying to get our attention with these back-to-back hurricanes sandwiching an 8.1 earthquake. She definitely has my attention! We’re going to update our earthquake kits this week instead of waiting until December. I definitely feel for the people going through all of this.