Always Look On The Bright Side Of Ike

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Over the past couple of weeks, we've heard ad nauseam about the painful effects of Hurricane Ike -- the flooded homes and businesses, the damaged rooftops, the rampant power outages, the lingering failures of Comcast not only to provide cable and Internet but also to explain coherently why they are not doing so...And so on.

Enough. It's time to start looking for the benefits of Hurricane Ike. Over the next few days we'll be looking for the bright side of the big blow, starting with:

1. Exotic bird sightings.

While the dregs of Ike were still lashing my neighborhood in near southwest Houston, I donned some foul-weather gear and went for a little walk around my neighborhood. In almost every vestibule of the McMansions that loom over my house, I found little flocks of dazed birds huddling in desperation. Most were run-of-the-mill suburban trash birds like house sparrows and grackles, but in one doorway a few houses down my flooded street I sighted two electric blue indigo buntings, their wet plumage mostly brown in the storm's dim light. While this was not a first for me -- not a new addition to what birders call a "life-list" -- their storm-addled mental state afforded me the chance to observe them up close and "personally," as it were. Indeed, I think I could have picked them up and taken them home had I wanted to wade through the floodwaters with them in hand.

While the Houston Audubon Society is reporting extensive damage from this hurricane season to the noted migratory birding area in and around High Island, and much lower-than-usual bird counts on the ravaged Bolivar Peninsula, the storm did afford Gulf Coast shorebirds the chance to strut their stuff in front of new audiences from Arkansas to Ohio.

In the latter state, birders were afforded the opportunity to take in the majesty of the forked tail and seven-foot wingspan of the Gulf/Caribbean's Magnificent Frigatebird, among other sightings.

But it was in Arkansas that a truly historic event occurred. Gary Graves, a native of Arkansas who today serves as the curator of birds at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, calls it "a once-in-a-generation event." Graves rattled off the sightings: Royal Terns, Laughing Gulls, Black Skimmers, Sabine's Gulls, Little Gulls, Pomarine Jaegers, Bridled Terns, Sooty Terns...The list goes on and on. "They had a pretty good time of it down there," he says.

Of course, shorebirds blown so far north face uncertain futures so far from their native habitats. "Nobody knows for sure how many of them make it back to the coast," says Graves. "They aren't banded or anything like that. I suspect that many don't."

But look on the bright side: Now the people of Arkansas have to be jealous of Texas bird life.

(What's been the bright side of Hurricane Ike for you? Send your ideas to john.lomax@houstonpress.com.)

-- John Nova Lomax

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