Watch for Dovekies

Posted:  Tuesday, February 20, 2018 - 9:15am

Everyone knows a puffin. With that big orangey bill, the puffin image is on cereal boxes, company trucks,  convenience store signs, Maine tourism brochures, and much more. A fair number of people also know of the puffin’s close relative, the black guillemot. In fact, more people have probably seen black guillemots than puffins even if they didn’t know what they were seeing. That’s because, of the members of the seabird family known as the alcids, black guillemots are the only ones in our area that hang out close to shore. Puffins, on the other hand, are almost never seen near shore but typically require a boat trip out at least to an offshore nesting island. The southernmost and most visited puffin nesting island is Eastern Egg Rock, just off New Harbor.

The alcid family worldwide includes 23 still-living species. The great auk was a large flightless alcid that stood nearly three feet tall, looking superficially like a member of the totally unrelated penguin family. Great auks nested on remote islands in the North Atlantic including off Newfoundland, Iceland, and the northernmost British Isles. It is thought that in winter, great auks occurred along the Maine coast. The last known great auks were two killed in 1844 on an island off Iceland.

The Pacific Coast of North America has more regularly occurring species of alcids than we do here on the Atlantic coast—18 species versus our 6. Pacific Coast alcids include some exotic-sounding ones like rhinoceros auklets, parakeet auklets, and marbled murrelets.

But one that we have and they don’t is the dovekie.

The dovekie is the smallest alcid on the Atlantic Coast, just over eight inches in length in average (the Atlantic puffin is about a foot long). Like most alcids, it’s black on top and white underneath. Unlike the puffin and many other alcids, the dovekie has a small, unadorned black beak.

We only get to see the occasional dovekie in winter. That’s because they nest far, far to the north in the high Arctic along the coast of Greenland and Baffin Island. In winter, they stay offshore in the North Atlantic, fairly regularly as far south as North Carolina, though in unusual years , they can be seen as far south as off Florida coast.

Here in Maine, birders usually see an occasional bird or two in winter from shore, though not many. This year, birders have been treated to what seems like a few more than usual, including a number of birds that have been easily seen close to shore in places like Cape Elizabeth and off Marginal Way in Ogunquit.

Dovekies are also famous for once in a while getting caught up in major storms and being pushed on land in what have been termed “wrecks.” In rare circumstances, dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of dovekies are caught up and, when the winds subside, are dropped inland on frozen lakes, driveways, roads, and backyards. Other years, larger numbers of dovekies are pushed by storms up along the coast and closer to shore.

Places in our areas to look for dovekies right now include off Ocean Point, Pemaquid Point, Reid State Park, and other areas that offer a good view of open ocean.

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the popular book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” (Tilbury House) and the just-released “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao” from Cornell University Press.