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Charming arctic visitors you can watch out for

Mark Faherty

The flying penguins are here – have you seen them? This is of course a reference to one of my favorite groups of birds – the alcids! November is when alcids arrive in numbers to the waters of the Cape and Islands, which means I get to tell you all about them.

But why flying penguins? Both penguins and alcids are black and white seabirds that fly gracefully underwater in pursuit of fish but move awkwardly on land. Both stand bolt upright, like people. Both tend to nest in fairly cold, often rocky places – penguins in the southern hemisphere and alcids in the north.

Alcids as a group are more commonly known as auks. The now extinct Great Auk, the only flightless alcid, was the first species to be referred to as a penguin, as far as we know. When explorers first encountered penguins, it is believed they transferred the penguin name to them because of their similarity with Great Auks. Sadly, Great Auks were hunted to extinction for food and for their down in the mid-19th century, so we lost our most penguin-esque bird in the northern hemisphere.

In reality, auks and penguins are not even closely related. Rather, they offer a classic example of “convergent evolution”, where unrelated species evolve similar traits under similar environmental and physical constraints. But, importantly for us, alcids never lost the ability to fly, which means that we get to see them each fall and winter after they have dispersed from their more northerly breeding colonies.

Seven species of alcids have been recorded on the Cape and Islands, but only one, the Razorbill, is common. Many hundreds can often be seen, especially off ocean side beaches, where they fly north and south in bunches. They also join gulls, loons, and gannets in feeding frenzies over schools of baitfish. If you are seeing what looks like flocks of black-and-white flying footballs zipping past with whirring wings, you are likely seeing this species. Both Thick-billed and Common Murres are also possible, but not common. The same goes for the Black Guillemot.

The most famous alcid of all is the flashy Atlantic Puffin. With its cereal box good looks, it’s the only alcid likely to have its own publicist. But my favorite is the Dovekie, a little wind-up bathtub toy of a seabird that enters our waters only sporadically. These tough little birds nest in gigantic colonies on Arctic sea cliffs, and mostly winter amidst the pack ice in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, which is impressive for a bird the size of a robin. Large numbers enter our waters some winters, when storms sometimes blow them ashore, where they are helpless.

For a chance to see alcids, bring your binoculars and scope to any bayside or backside beach and watch. You won’t see them every time, but if you catch it right you might see hundreds or sometimes thousands of Razorbills streaming by. If you really put your time in, you might catch a glimpse of a tiny Dovekie, a guillemot, some murres, or even one of those famous puffins. However you choose to go about looking for alcids, if you see a puffin, please, don’t stare – their ego is big enough as it is.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.