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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Day of the Dovekie: A "Paulagic" Birding Adventure at Sea

As you may recall from my blog entry in August 2011, one of my favorite types of bird watching is seabirding, or pelagic birding. The winter ocean offers the possibility of seeing species not found this far south during the summer months. Alcids are an attraction for these winter tours of the ocean, and a trip off-shore from NJ this past Saturday (2/4) was the best winter pelagic I’ve been on for seeing these birds.

My trip started out at 3:15am, when I met up with my friend Brian Henderson in King of Prussia. We figured we’d try doing the trip in one long day, rather than staying overnight on the Jersey Shore. We arrived at Wildwood Crest before 5:30am, and met our leader, Montgomery Co., PA resident Paul Guris, at the dock. The boat Paul chartered for this trip was the 110 foot “Atlantic Star”, which was a great boat for this sort of trip.

This had to be one of the better days of winter to be on the ocean for birdwatching. The sea was tame, at 1-3 feet, and there was little wind. The sun was shining until early afternoon, making viewing and photography conditions optimal, not to mention that it wasn’t very cold. The calm seas helped us find the floating alcids, who otherwise blend into the backdrop of the surface of a choppy sea.

It was dark when we pulled out from the pier, but soon, daylight made viewing easier. Shortly into the trip, we started spotting loons, scoters, and one of my favorites: The Northern Gannet. Gannets were with us much of the day, to my delight. It was entirely amusing and awesome to watch them as they came in and either sliced into the ocean sideways to get to the chum that was falling into the water, or, plunge dive beak first like an aquatic missile. The sound effects completed the show: just before they dove, they squawked twice in a gravely voice, and went down. It was very entertaining to watch!

Northern Gannet squawking as it comes in for a plunge dive

Northern Gannet gracefully soars above the water

Razorbills were the first distant alcids to be spotted. This was expected, as Razorbills tend to stay closer to land than the other alcid species. Alcids are pelagic birds who are more adapted to using their wings to “fly” underwater, rather than in air. That said, unlike the penguin, these birds do a good amount of flying. They dive deep into the water using their webbed feet and wings to propel them, and their sleekly compact bodies to torpedo down to their preferred food source, sometimes a few hundred feet down.

We were about sixteen miles out to sea when seven little white dots bounced up from the surface of the ocean, and formed a fast moving line. Shouts of “DOVEKIE!!!” could be heard echoing around the boat. While we thought we might see some, as reports earlier in the week gave promise, seeing them this close inland was a surprise. While the looks were distant for this first sighting, there was no doubt that the “flying Nerf footballs”, as Paul Guris described, were these tiny seabirds on the move.

The first seven Dovekie of what would be close to seven hundred totaled for the day

Little did we know at this point, the boat would tally over 660 Dovekie spotted throughout the day. There were periods of time when many strings of Dovekie could be seen flying low to the water across the open ocean. Rarely were they seen flying solo, most often they were oddly in groups of four or eight. There were some the boat came up fairly close to as they were floating on the surface, where we could get nice long appreciative looks at these tiny little seabirds.

Two Dovekie floating by the boat

Alcids, and particularly the Dovekie, have many threats of predation on the open ocean. There are the larger fish and presumably sharks that could snatch a floating Dovekie from below, but the aerial predators who find them can be quite menacing and fierce, particularly the larger gull species. Unfortunately, we got to witness a Great Black-backed Gull pluck a Dovekie off the water and carry it away. It was unclear whether or not the Dovekie was already dead, or, if the Great Black-backed in fact killed the bird before pulling it off the ocean. I was photographing the gull, and wondering “what’s that black thing it’s carrying?” before we all realized exactly what was happening. The photos were telling of the story. Such is the circle of life, and nature.

Great Black-backed Gull has just plucked a Dovekie off the surface

Great Black-backed Gull carries the lifeless Dovekie away

In addition to that casualty, another Dovekie met it’s demise yesterday, likely at the beak of a Herring Gull. The dead bird was noticed and pulled from the ocean by Paul, who brought it on board for us all to study. It was amazing to see just how small these birds truly are up close.

This dead Dovekie allowed many to study and learn this bird up close

A “fanciful” little alcid we are all familiar with, birder or not, is the Atlantic Puffin. This bird sports a highly decorative beak during the breeding season, which coupled with what looks akin to theatrical eye make-up, can make them look quite clownish in appearance. After the breeding ritual is complete, the bright colors and crisp white face being to fade, as the colors peel off the bill, and the facial feathers being to fill in with a smudgy gray. This change is advantageous for survival on the open ocean, as the birds blend into the water. On this trip, we were lucky enough to encounter eighteen individual total. A few were floating close enough to the boat to allow some photographs, and long studies of this large beaked bird.

We had fewer Common Murre, but there were a couple that sat still long enough for us to study, including this one

One of the specialty gulls of the pelagic trips in winter are Black-legged Kittiwakes. Not easily found from land, or close to it (that said—read Al Guarente’s report from last year of an encounter on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry!), this demure looking gull is often attracted to the “chum slicks” provided by fishing boats and seabirding tours. We had several encounters with this species, and were treated to a variety of ages to compare the plumages. While I am a fan of the “black Ms” on the back of the younger birds, the older birds are a treat to see when compared to the bulky Herring Gulls and massive Great Black-backeds.

Adult Black-legged Kittiwake skips on the surface to take off

My favorite seabirds are the “tubenosed” birds. So, multiple visits from Northern Fulmars really made my day. Like the Shearwaters and Petrels, these birds are built for soaring and gliding above the ocean for endless miles. The long tapered wings enable them a life on open water, traveling long distances with little effort . This bird nests on cliffs in the Arctic and subartic, but spends their winter months where the seas are free of ice, including a good portion of the Atlantic seaboard. Like the other tubenose species, the naricorn or tube atop the bill of a Fulmar, helps the bird to smell at long distances, and filter out the salt from the seawater. No doubt the chum and oil slick provided by Paul and his crew of “chummers” attracted the attention of this very obliging Northern Fulmar:

Northern Fulmar (light phase)

Size comparison (l-r) Herring Gull, Northern Fulmar, Northern Gannet

As always, I am eager to have another opportunity to get off-shore in search of birds. 
If this type of birdwatching looks appealing to you, I highly recommend going out with Paul Guris and his See Life Paulagics tour company. Paul runs at top notch trip. ( .

Paul and his spotters will show you the birds, and any other ocean life encountered (I forgot to mention we saw several pods of dolphins and a Finback Whale, a species that is federally listed as endangered).

After this very satisfying day at sea, Brian and I headed back to Pennsylvania. While it made for a very long day, making it a daytrip, it wasn’t as hard as I expected. I guess the adrenaline from such a great day on the ocean, and seeing fabulous birds, makes anything seem doable! I hope that you, too, will have a chance to get off shore and see some of these ocean specialty birds.

When you do, I wish you fair winds and following seas, and great birds!

All Photos taken and copyrighted by Holly Merker

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