Black and White Razorbills, Common Murre and Skimmer

Razorbill: Photo by Lanny McDowell
After swimming through a school of sand eels in Menemsha Pond, the adult razorbill at right shares its catch with the youngster whose facial feathering of adult plumage is gradually emerging. The two birds appear to be spending another summer on-Island, far south of their expected breeding range. Photo by Lanny McDowell

Story by E. Vernon Laux - July 13, 2006

The summer of 2006 is featuring some most unusual black and white avian visitors. Birds that spend the winter offshore and nest on rocky cliffs and islands up at the top of the planet during the summer months are here this summer in their breeding plumages. They are known as alcids, of the family alcidae, of which the puffin is the most well-known. If you are not familiar with this family, take a look in a bird book and note their distinctive summer and winter plumages, both of which are largely black and white, and ranges. They are the northern hemisphere's version of penguins, only the alcids have not lost their ability to fly.

The birds' occurrence here is so bizarre and outrageous that some observers assumed they are perhaps injured, or sick in some way, the only plausible explanations for their presence in Vineyard waters in the summer. Except for the fact that razorbills, chunky birds about the size of a football, have taken up summer residence in Menemsha Pond again, for perhaps the fourth time in the last six years, making them an anomaly that continues. This is quite without parallel for these birds that fly around underwater in pursuit of small fish.

It seems certain that the birds like it there but in the long ornithological history of the state there had never been summering razorbills before. Now, whether it is the same individual birds is impossible to tell, although a few summers ago there were three birds summering in the pond - which is not a pond at all but a saltwater, tidal estuary. The species is becoming routine in Menemsha Pond the past few summers.

More amazing is that in prior years the birds had never achieved the bright white markings and satiny jet black of breeding plumage but this year they look as if they are attempting to breed. Not quite, but surely they are exhibiting some sight fidelity to the area and they look capable of perhaps attempting to nest; only where they would lay the eggs is a mystery. It is exciting, mysterious and unknown so stay tuned for next year when a breeding attempt would be several hundred miles further south in the Northwestern Atlantic than ever seen before.

Another rare sighting

As if having one alcid species around in July were not enough, on the morning of July 10, a breeding plumaged common murre was discovered off the entrance to Lake Tashmoo, the same kind of "lake" as Menemsha Pond. David Stanwood of West Tisbury was out in his small boat when he almost ran over this bird. Shocked, David turned around, identified the bird and even managed to get a good digital photo.

Is something unprecedented going on in the alcids' world? Or are there just more people out looking, who recognize what they see, even when it is obscure, small, pelagic seabirds that capture their food by "flying" around in pursuit of it underwater. When the birds are feeding they are underwater almost all the time. It is like spotting fish with binoculars - in a word, difficult. At any rate, it is quite something to have both razorbills and a common murre in breeding plumage, right in close to shore on the Vineyard in mid-July. It is something new.

More usual, but always noteworthy, was a black skimmer. There are three species of skimmers in the world; they are the only birds that have elongated lower mandibles, meaning their lower beak is longer than the upper beak. They are crazy looking black-and-white birds with a long, knife-like, orange-based black beak, resembling a toucan or an American oystercatcher that got zapped by radiation while in the egg.

They are short and squat with large neck muscles, the better to carry that large beak through the water with. Skimmers are active after dark (nocturnal) and feed very actively at dawn and dusk, this is called crespuscular activity. Skimmers are tropical and semitropical in occurrence. They are common in this part of the world only after strong tropical storms blow them here. A few are seen most years in the summer and they are always a treat for birders on the Vineyard.

Lastly, shorebirds are already beginning to arrive on their southbound migration on beaches and tidal flats. Increasing in numbers and diversity as the month continues, these adult birds have finished breeding for the year and are on schedule to arrive in South America by late August or early September. Every time the wind blows from the northwest, more birds arrive on it. It is fortunate at this time of year that the best birding is at the coolest spot - the flats and beaches.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!

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