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A Dovekie flight for the record books

David Larson

If you look at a map of the world on your computer screen, thanks to the way we project the curved earth onto a flat plane, at a certain point the map just ends. You just see a straight line north of Greenland, around where the North Pole should be, and above that is just nothing – the end of the earth. It is in this vicinity, just a bit south of the North Pole, that a little bird called the Dovekie nests by the millions in vast cliffside colonies. Relatively small numbers of these feathered little elves of the North Pole occasionally visit us at unpredictable intervals here on the Cape and Islands. When they do, birders always rejoice. Last week was one of those times, and when all the numbers from all the birders at all the usual vantage points were in, they showed that this was a Dovekie flight for the record books.

Last Thursday I was working at Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture sanctuary as a stiff northwesterly gale blew outside. A window to my right looked north across the big mouth of Barnstable Harbor to Sandy Neck beach. Though working at my laptop, I had my binoculars next to me, as you might expect, and even a spotting scope set up nearby just in case. On one of my scans I noticed three tiny, black and white birds heading into the harbor on whirring wings – Dovekies! These are the smallest members of the alcids, the group of seabirds that includes puffins, and this was an odd place to see them – typically they are only out on the bay or open Atlantic. I saw them a few more times over the course of the morning, which told me that other people were probably seeing way more somewhere else.

Sure enough, Cape seabird guru Blair Nikula was in the right place at the right time – that morning, he had tallied 19,000 Dovekies passing First Encounter Beach in just 90 minutes. Had he been able to stay, the total would have been even higher. While big, occasional Dovekie flights have been documented in Massachusetts at least as far back as 1871, this ranks as one of the biggest. Others counted several thousand each at places like Corporation Beach in Dennis and of course Race Point in Provincetown over the next couple of mornings.

rescued dovekie
Eren / Flickr
CC 2.0
A rescued Dovekie; image from 2008.

Because these little birds get blown inland and end up stranded, these big flights of Dovekies have another, more poetic name: “Dovekie wrecks”. While they fit in the palm of your hand, feeling like a really dense rubber ducky, Dovekies are tough-as nails-birds perfectly at home at the edge of Arctic pack ice in winter. There they feed on krill and other zooplankton as well as small fish. A few always come further south, as far as Maryland, but some years, for mysterious reasons, we get these big wrecks where Dovekies rain from the skies, sometimes ending up way out in Berkshire County. One wreck back in 1932 had them bouncing down onto the streets of New York City like some bizarre new form of hail.

This wreck last week indeed stranded dozens of these little seabirds in woods, streets, and yards around the Cape. One birder saw his “life” Dovekie sitting on Main St in South Dennis. The lucky ones were brought to Wild Care or Cape Wildlife, and several have already been released. The Dovekies have moved on for now, but the next storm may bring another wreck. If you ever find a stranded Dovekie, please just call the rehabbers and keep them somewhere dark and quiet until they can get them. With a little care, that lost little elf will be back near the North Pole before you know it.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.