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The 'Penguin of the North' Causes a Stir Among Cape Cod Birders

The Ancient one has returned; the prophecy has been fulfilled. Ok, maybe there wasn’t a prophecy, but the Ancient one has indeed returned. For the first time in over 20 years, a mysterious bird known as the Ancient Murrelet has appeared in Massachusetts. And this odd, singing sea bird from the North Pacific may have an interesting story to tell—one that involves climate change and international shipping route wars.

This Ancient Murrelet was discovered on Monday at—where else? Race Point in Provincetown. Off-Cape birder Amy O’Neill found the bird, likely had some heart palpitations upon realizing what it was, then further taxed her circulatory system by sprinting over a half mile through soft sand to notify the other nearest birders. That there were several birders way out at Race Point early on a Monday morning should give you a sense of its importance to our people.

Ancient Murrelets are alcids, meaning they are related to puffins, Razorbills, and murres, the “penguins of the north." With penguins they share the formalwear color palette, the graceful underwater “flight," the taste for seafood, and the big noisy breeding colonies. But alcids can fly, which I’m sure they don’t let the penguins forget at the family reunions. Ancient Murrelets are unique among the alcids, and perhaps among all seabirds, in that the males sit on perches and “sing," if you want to call it that, and also in that they raise their young entirely at sea. The chicks leave the burrow a few days after hatching to be fed and raised on the water.

Ancient Murrelets breed along the North Pacific rim from China to Alaska and British Columbia. The straight-line distance to the nearest other Ancient Murrelet right now is about 2600 miles to coastal Oregon. So how did this guy get here? There are a strange number of records of this stubby, 8-inch seabird for the middle of North America, places like Colorado and Iowa and the Great Lakes, suggesting they fly the wrong way over land for some reason. But there are other ways.

The weirdest record of this species in New England was a breeding-plumaged bird that spent spring of 2016 touring the seabird islands off Maine. The Arctic sea ice was at a record low that year, meaning this little flying dumpling of a bird might have taken a northern route to get to Maine. In fact, there is increasing speculation that as Arctic ice thins even more, Atlantic and Pacific seabirds are occasionally using this new route to switch oceans, as if part of some Atlantic-Pacific seabird exchange program.

The interior Arctic route between the oceans is known as the Northwest Passage, and as the ice continues to recede, is an increasingly sought-after route for international shipping conglomerates and wildlife alike. Bowhead Whales have been documented crossing the passage from Atlantic to Pacific during low ice periods, and several species of seabirds, including gannets and shearwaters, are suspected of doing the same. It would take some serendipitous satellite tracking to prove this for sure, so for now it’s conjecture.

However this murrelet got here, it’s a real shiny bauble for a birder’s life list, and a potential off-season economic boost for P’town, likely to draw people from around the region needing to buy gas and lunch. With COVID having clipped the wings of everyone’s more exotic birding travel plans, we’re lucky to live here on Cape Cod, where the exotic so often comes to us.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.