Wild Side: Dovekies may show up

And you may not need your binoculars.

The dovekie may be spotted more often near the Vineyard. —National Park Service

Since it seems to be impossible to write about alcids — that is, the auks — without mentioning footballs, I’ll get it over with. These seabirds, often described as the Arctic’s ecological equivalent of the Antarctic penguins, really do look like footballs with wings. Their bodies are round, thick, and oblong; their tails are virtually nonexistent; and their wings, adapted almost as much for “flying” underwater as for true flight in the air, are stubby and stiff. Like all the alcids, the dovekie has black-and-white plumage (though the Atlantic puffin famously sports a brilliant orange bill in breeding plumage).

The northwestern Atlantic Ocean has six regularly occurring species of alcids, all of which occur in Vineyard waters at least occasionally, but none of which is typically easy to observe. Several Western species are possible here, though not yet recorded, as vagrants. Winter visitors for the most part, alcids tend to spend their time well offshore, meaning at long telescope range for the razorbill, which is our most commonly observed alcid, but in truly pelagic waters for the dovekie, our smallest alcid, and one of my favorite birds.

As footballs go, dovekies are toy ones, like you’d buy for a young child or a golden retriever. The overall length of this tiny auk is only about eight inches, which is astonishing when you reflect that this species generally spends the entire winter afloat on the open North Atlantic. A dovekie’s beak is short relative to those of our other auks, stubby and stout, almost like a grosbeak’s bill. This feature reflects this bird’s unusual diet: While most alcids feed primarily on fish, the dovekie specializes in eating crustaceans, especially copepods, which may constitute this bird’s entire diet in winter.

Somewhat more buoyant than its relatives both in the air and in the water, the dovekie still looks absolutely frantic in flight, powering along low over the water with blurringly fast wingbeats. Its foraging dives tend to be fairly short by alcid standards, and a characteristic feeding strategy is said to be “bounce-diving”: The bird flails its way to the bottom and then makes a less rapid and direct return to the surface, doing most of its foraging on the way up. Dovekies have also been documented feeding in shallow water, skimming the bottom and feeding on the small crustaceans stirred up by their passage.

Despite its usual pelagic habits in winter, dovekies can be found inshore (or even on land) if they’re driven there by strong wings. Like a variety of other seabirds, dovekies are susceptible to mass “wrecks,” in which storm-driven birds land on roads and parking lots, mistaking the pavement for water. Dead dovekies are sometimes found washed up on Island beaches.

The dovekie is an infrequent visitor to Vineyard shores, unpredictable in its occurrence. Even a very active birder can go for years without seeing one from the Vineyard shoreline (and single birds are encountered far more commonly than groups). But on the other hand, you can strike it rich, finding dozens in a day for no apparent reason. While I’ve picked some dovekies out with a telescope as they ride the waves far offshore, most of the not very many dovekies I’ve seen here have actually been at close range. Probably these were ill, injured, or starving birds, seeking sheltered sites to try to recover their strength.

A number of dovekie reports have come in recently from up-Island birders, raising the prospect that this will be a good winter for this peculiar species. My impression is that Vineyard dovekie reports have been growing more frequent in recent years; the species seems to have gone from a once-every-few-years bird to a several-times-a-winter one. If this pattern is a real one, I have no idea what might be causing it. But these are tumultuous times for seabirds, with warming waters, shifting winds and currents, and dramatically changing populations of prey species. Any number of factors, alone or in combination, could be encouraging more birds to winter inshore, or increasing the number of distressed birds that end up close to land.

Regardless of its winter status on the Vineyard, the dovekie remains a mind-bogglingly numerous species. Most modern estimates put the total population of this seabird in the tens of millions. In the North Atlantic, there are huge breeding colonies on cliffs in Greenland and Iceland. The species also breeds in northernmost Europe. There are a few smallish colonies in maritime Canada, but I expect that most of the birds we see originate in Greenland. Little seems to be known about how this bird’s population is trending; it is difficult to census at its remote, cliffside colonies, and of course counting dovekies on their pelagic wintering grounds is impossible to do in any meaningful way.

The vast majority of alcids a Vineyard birder will see from shore will be razorbills, which can be present by the thousands during migration in early winter and early spring. Common and thick-billed murres and black guillemots are infrequently seen from shore, and the Atlantic puffin is known here only from a scant handful of records. But the dovekie may be growing more regular here, and it is worth keeping an eye out for its tiny, stubby shape when you’re scanning the water.