Patricia and I and our new puppy Emmi were strolling and birding along the bouldery beach at Montauk Point, Long Island, on New Year’s Day. Mostly I was looking for seabirds. And there were thousands of ducks like scoters and eiders out feeding in the tide rips, plus many gannets over the ocean. Some Common and Red-throated Loons. Someone saw a King Eider, a fantastic bird very rare here, but we didn’t find it. Oddly, not many gulls, though we did see a winter visitor from the arctic, a Glaucous Gull. And there were a few Harbor Seals and at least one large horse-headed Gray Seal.
But the main highlight was a Dovekie that gave us great looks. It’s the smallest seabird in our region and not much larger than a Blue Jay. It looks like a tiny penguin. But unlike penguins (which live entirely in the Southern Hemisphere), the Dovekie (which belongs to a group called Alcids, or auks) can fly. Like penguins, it’s a bird of cold waters; Dovekies breed in the arctic.
Dovekies seen in our part of the world breed in places like Baffin Island, Canada, and Greenland. Arctic Foxes may try to prowl the vicinity of their nesting cliffs. They are small enough to be swallowed whole by Great Black-backed Gulls, though people are more likely to use forks and knives. (Yes, people eat them.) Like all arctic wildlife, Dovekies’ main challenge is likely to come from climate changes to their habitat.
After getting wonderful looks in strong light, we were amazed to see our Dovekie actually come ashore. They don’t usually do that here. And the reason is, sadly, that it was having some trouble staying dry. Some of its feathers, like the ones around its neck, looked damp. Normally it would have been 100 percent waterproof and dry.
Malnutrition, or exposure to chemicals such as oil, can cause loss of waterproofing. This bird is not visibly oiled. We elected to leave it rather than to try to catch it to bring in to the wildlife rehab center. Dovekie’s don’t do well in captivity and there was no obvious oil to remove.
Turns out, the Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays got three other distressed Dovekies the same day. Penny Moser of the Center wrote: “Both of the oiled birds are still alive, along with another that had no visible oil. One bird was badly oiled, the other just a drop — but enough for him to lose his waterproofing. It really only takes a drop and the whole system collapses, leading to hypothermia and waterlogging. Dovekies are really really hard to keep alive, so we hope to release our guys asap.”
It’s a harsh environment out there, but I find it distressing to see wildlife in trouble because of things people do. In our case, our bird looked much more comfortable after preening for a while. We weren’t sure what the root of its problem was. We wished it well and hoped for the best.