Spotting a dovekie

Dovekies are members of the alcid family, which also includes puffins. For Maine birders, dovekies are the Holy Grail, as they don't nest here and don't approach land.
Photo courtesy of Bob Duchesne
Dovekies are members of the alcid family, which also includes puffins. For Maine birders, dovekies are the Holy Grail, as they don't nest here and don't approach land.
Posted Feb. 10, 2012, at 3:02 p.m.

Technically, it’s not my dovekie. My wife, Sandi, spotted it a split second before I did. But ever since I reported to the Maine birding community that a dovekie was hanging around Hinckley Boat Yard in Manset, birders have been calling it “Bob Duchesne’s dovekie.”

A dovekie is a member of the alcid family, also called auks. The Atlantic puffin is the most famous member of this family, but in Maine waters the family also includes black guillemots, common murres, thick-billed murres and razorbills. Black guillemots nest in cliffs on the mainland and are very common near shore. Murres and razorbills nest offshore but will sometimes approach land so that they can be seen from various vantage points. Puffins nest on five islands along the Maine coast, but seldom get close enough for landlubbers to see them. Dovekies are the Holy Grail. They don’t nest here and don’t often approach land. They can be easily overlooked due to their size. Finding a cooperative bird so near land: well, that’s just swell.

Dovekies are truly tiny. At one time, their official name was little auk. They are only half the size of a puffin, perhaps about the size of a starling. They are small enough that glaucous gulls are one of their chief predators on their nesting grounds. It’s a chunky bird with a stubby bill. The collective name for a flock of these at sea is a “wreck” of dovekies.

Dovekies are breathtakingly abundant in the high arctic. They are the most numerous of all the alcid species. One nesting colony in northwestern Greenland has been estimated to contain 30 million dovekies. Except for going ashore to nest, they spend their entire lives at sea. They can roam south in winter and large numbers are often encountered in areas where right whales congregate. In cold months, scientists studying the endangered whales frequently see dovekies in these waters, feeding off the same food sources. With so many dovekies in the North Atlantic, it’s no surprise that a few are seen from the Maine coastline every year.

But nobody remembers one hanging around like the “Duchesne dovekie” did. It spent over a week in the same spot. A bunch of birders went to see it. Often a lingering alcid is sick or injured. Not this one. He was plump, happy, diving constantly and feeding voraciously. It was just a fishy spot, and of all the gazillion dovekies in the world, he alone had found it.

Watching a dovekie from a pitching boat is unusual enough. It’s extraordinarily rare to observe one closely from the stability of dry land. Like all members of the alcid family, dovekies have unusual adaptations. While on the surface, the movements of their wings and feet draw plankton and small fish upward. They engage in “bounce” diving, whereby they swim to a depth and then let their own buoyancy help to propel them to the surface in a zig-zag motion, snatching fish as they rise. All alcids are dark on top and most are white on the bottom. A dovekie rising from below would be less visible to its prey. While on the surface, the light coloration would be less obvious to predators against the background of the sky.

Alcids in the northern hemisphere occupy the same ecological niche as penguins of the southern hemisphere, though they are unrelated. Alcids differ from penguins in that they have retained the ability to fly, barely. Dovekies have stiff, stubby wings that are designed to propel them in both water and air. Its flight is typical of all alcids: rapid, whirring wing beats much like a bumblebee. When buzzing about the ocean, this is sufficient flight capability, but a dovekie aloft in a strong wind is in trouble. There are many records of dovekies being blown ashore. A famous incident occurred in the winter of 1932-1933 when thousands of dovekies rained down on the streets of New York City. There are similar stories in Maine, though not as dramatic.

Dovekies change plumage in winter. Their heads are all dark in breeding season, but the throat, chin, and side of the neck turns white this time of year. This makes the bird ideal for a story in the Bangor Daily News. The black-and-white photo in the newspaper looks identical to the color photo on the BDN website. Of course, if that were the prime consideration, I’d do the next story on crows.

Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.

 

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