You might have missed it, but the floodgates recently opened. The conditions must have set up just right, with east winds over the weekend, followed by very strong northwest winds through Tuesday morning. This brought big numbers of everyone’s favorite little winter seabird ever so briefly within reach of our binoculars. Thousands of Dovekies passed classic seabirding spots over the last few days, including over 1000 at Race Point and more than 4000 at First Encounter Beach in Eastham. Most birders are excited to see just one Dovekie, so this was hitting the jackpot.
Dovekies weren’t alone in these big flights – our heftier and more expected local alcid, the Razorbill, was also passing in large numbers. You can see these guys fairly easily, with some decent optics and a bit of prerequisite knowledge, from various bay and ocean beaches all winter long. Likely 10,000 of them passed First Encounter yesterday morning, reported by Blair Nikula, tallyer of most of the significant seabird counts on Cape Cod over the last several decades. But as astounding as the count of Razorbills was, it was the loveable little Dovekies that stole the show.
Dovekies and Razorbills are both alcids, related to puffins. Dovekies are the smallest of the group, small enough that a big gull can swallow them whole. At a stubby 7 or 8 inches, these little birds look like they shouldn’t be out there in those cold and windy conditions – you want to scoop them up and put them in your bathtub to warm up. But the reality is they are way tougher than they look, and we’re actually at the extreme southern end of their wintering range here. This is the tropics for a Dovekie - untold millions of these mysterious birds winter at the edge of Arctic pack ice where they feed on abundant planktonic crustaceans and hope they don’t meet the business end of a Snowy Owl or a Glaucous Gull.
Dovekies breed in remote, High Arctic colonies in numbers hard to imagine – one colony in NW Greenland is estimated at 30 million birds, crammed onto coastal cliffs and in crevices. I suspect you can smell that colony well before you see it. The adults engage in a courtship that normally more prosaically restrained ornithologists have described as “frankly adorable," including various head bobs, rubbing their bills together, and what is described as a “butterfly flight." Parents might fly 60 miles to forage on copepods, which they bring back to the chicks in a special throat pouch unique to the species.
Around here Dovekies are famous for occasional “wrecks," when big storms blow thousands of them inshore, and hundreds may end up in suburban driveways and lawns, among other places that must seem very far away from the pack ice. They nest on cliffs, where they can just sort of walk to the edge and drop into mid-air, which means they’re not great at taking off from land. So the only hope for a “wrecked” Dovekie is to be found by a bird-friendly good Samaritan who can bring it to a local wildlife rehabber. We’re lucky to have both Wild Care in Eastham and Cape Wildlife Center in Barnstable to bring our injured and wayward birds to. No one had called any Dovekies in as this was “going to press," but if you come home to find a black-and-white bathtub toy you don’t remember owning, you’ve probably got yourself a Dovekie, so get that local rehabber on the horn.