With winter coming, northern lapwings were heading south, leaving home in Scandinavia and the British Isles for the warm African coast. But in fleeing the cold, the colorful plovers flew into something far worse.
Swept up by Hurricane Sandy, the migratory birds were cast out to sea and carried across the Atlantic before a lucky few landed, against long odds, on the East Coast. In Sandy's wake, at least five storm-tossed lapwings have been spotted in Massachusetts, delighting birdwatchers who say the implausible arrival is nearly without precedent.
"It's the equivalent of walking down Mass. Ave. and seeing 15 double-decker buses filled with Brits wearing Burberry jackets," said Joan Walsh, director of bird monitoring at the Massachusetts Audubon Society. "This is cuckoo."
The striking birds, about the size of a pigeon, have been seen on Nantucket, Cape Cod, and in open fields in the Middleborough area south of Boston. Sandy's rare confluence of weather patterns also blew seabirds like the dovekie well inland, and flung brown pelicans from North Carolina all the way to New England.
As the birdtracker site ebird.org put it, Sandy shook up the avian world like a giant snow globe.
"I cannot think of a time when we've had wind-blown birds from the south and north in the same storm," said Tom French, assistant director of the state's wildlife agency.
French said some 15 brown pelicans were seen on Nantucket, more than had ever been recorded in the region. Many wore bands showing they were from North Carolina and Virginia. Many were left exhausted and injured by the storm, and two of the pelicans found in Rhode Island will be flown back to Florida in a private plane. But many have died.
"They have not fared well," said Marshall Iliff, project leader of ebird.org, a project overseen by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.
While Sandy's unusual power knocked the lapwings thousands of miles off course, it also allowed at least some to reach shore safely. Weaker winds would have made the journey too long to survive, Iliff said, estimating the birds were airborne across the Atlantic for about three days.
"The winds were strong enough to get them here quickly," he said. "There was a stream of easterly wind all the way across. This storm just happened to come in at the right season and the right angle."
Storms will bring the occasional lapwing to North America, but Sandy marked the first time in memory that so many made it so far. The birds have also been recently seen in New Jersey, Maine, and Newfoundland, he said.
The birds' future here is unclear. For the moment, they are adapting well, finding food plentiful in open fields. But surviving a hard winter would be difficult.
"It doesn't seem impossible they could find each other and breed," he said. "But that's never happened."
Once they have recovered from the storm, the wayward pelicans should be able to fly south, specialists said. But while the plovers are capable of covering long distances, home is out of reach.
"The pelicans go home, but what do the lapwings do?" French mused. "That's the $50,000 question."
The brown pelicans who will be taken back to Florida landed in Rhode Island last week, utterly spent from their journey. One landed in a state park in Narragansett, and a second landed on a fishing vessel 120 miles south of Block Island, so weak it could barely flap its wings.
The fishermen fed fish to the pelican and after docking brought it to a rehabilitation center.
"They are both exhausted, as you can imagine. Beat up and bruised," said Kristin Fletcher, executive director of the nonprofit Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island. "I can't even begin to imagine what that trip must have been like."
When the birds met, they were thrilled. They were far from home, but at least they weren't alone.
"They were exceptionally happy to see each other," Fletcher said. "They actually had their necks wrapped around each other. That reduces the stress of captivity."
The 3-foot-tall birds were first placed in an outdoor cage, but as it got colder the staff grew worried.
"They're not designed for those temperatures," Fletcher said.
No indoor cage was big enough, so they staff decided to use a five-person tent. The birds don't seem to mind, as long as they get fish.
"They're pretty laid-back birds," she said.
Getting them home was the next challenge. They would need to be in a pressurized, heated part of the plane, but their cages would be too large for cargo. They would need a private plane. And when people heard about the birds in need, the center received an outpouring of support, and soon raised enough money to send the pelicans back home. They will land near Daytona Beach, and marine specialists there will care for them until they can be released. The flight is scheduled for Saturday.
Just when caretakers thought the saga was coming to a close, birders spotted a third brown pelican Thursday on the rocks of an island in Narragansett Bay. If the bird is worn out and doesn't mind, a plane ride home awaits.