Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Elusive Ducks and Seabirds Currently A-Plenty on the Cape

Peter Flood

What’s black and white and attracts birders from all over? It’s a special Arctic seabird wintering in Provincetown Harbor, one that’s maybe never been seen in Massachusetts before. This representative of an obscure subspecies known as “Mandt’s” Black Guillemot has been causing quite a stir, and providing a few ecotourism dollars to Provincetown during this otherwise sleepy time of year.


Black Guillemots are a member of the group of cold water, northern hemisphere seabirds known as alcids, along with puffins, Razorbills, and murres, among others. In summer these sleek, pigeon sized birds are jet black with striking white wing patches and characteristic blood red legs, but molt into an overall dusky whitish plumage in winter.


Guillemots breed as far away as the Siberian Sea and close as Mid-Coast Maine. The expected subspecies here in New England winters along rocky coastlines from Canada to Massachusetts. While they will eat any type of small fish they can catch, in the North Atlantic they are semi-specialists on an eel-like fish called the Rock Gunnel. Photos of guillemots from North America and Europe often show them holding one of these anguiline, often bright red fish. For the record, anguiline is not a word, but I here propose it as a more elegant alternative to “eel-like”, one that’s based on the scientific name for the eel family. Lexicographers take note.


Their proclivity for rocks means guillemots are an uncommon seabird on our mostly sandy archipelago. So when Peter Flood noticed a Black Guillemot paddling around Provincetown’s pier back in mid-December, he made sure to take a close look. Having seen many others over the years, it was clear this individual was different, being nearly pure white everywhere except the wings, whereas our usual guillemots are much duskier. A bit of research revealed this was almost certainly the High Arctic Mandt’s subspecies, which apparently has never been recorded in New England, at least not in the last century.


It’s worth talking about the natural history of this fascinating subspecies, which may be the most northerly wintering seabird. Mandt’s Black Guillemots are tied very closely to Arctic pack ice, even in winter. The scientific term for this behavior is “pagophilic”, meaning dependent on ice, making them essentially an avian equivalent of a Polar Bear. To give you an idea of how tough these Mandt’s guillemots are, while tracked birds from the northern Alaska breeding population did indeed fly south for the winter, they went no further than the sea ice off balmy central Alaska. As Arctic sea ice extent continues to shrink, I’m wondering if these birds will start to wander a bit more outside the chilly confines of their normal range, and whether the Provincetown bird is a harbinger of things to come.


While you are in town to tick this rare guillemot off your list, make sure to check out the other birds in the harbor. As always, the extra scrutiny provided by the influx of birders and their high-end optics has revealed some other nice birds, including several Thick-billed Murres, a Barrow’s Goldeneye, assorted Dovekies, and Long-tailed Ducks. For photographers, the piers in Wellfleet and Provincetown offer some of the best opportunities to snag close photos of otherwise elusive ducks and seabirds. While most birders in the US have never seen a Dovekie or a murre, let alone this uber-obscure guillemot, you might have one paddling about within spitting distance of you and your camera like a Mallard looking for bread. So grab your binoculars and whatever camera you can find, and go take a long walk on a town pier.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.