CREATURES: Blown off-course, dovekies find helping hands

The following is an older story. However, the winter of 2021-22 is equally hard on these and related seabirds. They cannot take off from land, so be sure to contact your local animal rescue group for help. Editor

EASTHAM– Wild Care, the wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center, received six dovekies late last week. A sea-faring species, the birds were blown inland due to high northeast winds from a cold front that swept Cape Cod and much of Massachusetts Dec. 17.

Two of the birds survived and were released Dec. 20 from a Center for Coastal Studies Research vessel. The birds were released off the southern end of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

“The calls started coming in to Wild Care’s Wildlife Helpline on Dec. 18; reports of small black-and-white birds, shaped like a football, found in strange places,” said Stephanie Ellis, Wild Care’s executive director.

“Based on the recent weather event, my animal care staff knew immediately that we had a seabird wreck on our hands. Dovekies are an Arctic species that spend their winter miles offshore in the North Atlantic including the coast of Cape Cod. The dovekies that were brought to us were found in parking lots and major streets of Brewster and Orleans. One bird was found in the parking lot of the Community of Jesus in Orleans,” stated Ellis.

“With sustained winds and frigid temperatures, seabirds can become weakened, and blown inland. Dovekies in particular are often found in parking lots and roads when this occurs. We believe that weakened and disoriented birds may misinterpret asphalt as a body of water.”

Ellis said these birds spend their lives offshore surviving extreme ocean conditions and storms. In a rehabilitation setting, it is a different story. They are not so hearty.

“They have an extremely fast metabolism that requires steady and sufficient nutrients to keep their energy up. Their feathers are also incredibly effective as insulators, making the birds susceptible to overheating when they are not on the water,” explained Ellis, adding, “My staff tube-fed these birds a rich slurry of plankton, krill, fish oil, vitamins and other ingredents – every two hours. All of the birds spent the day on our cold-water therapy pools yesterday, ensuring that they were fully waterproof, before being released back to their icy ocean home.”

Four of the dovekies in rehabilitation did not survive.

Dovekies can usually be seen by the trained eye.

“You can sometimes see them closer inland around McMillan Pier, and Race Point in Provincetown in the winter, or in the bay after northeast storms. But normally they are found well offshore,” said Ellis.

Mark Faherty, science coordinator of the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary added; “The tremendous flight of over 5,000 dovekies at First Encounter Beach on Dec. 17, was apparently the second largest ever recorded on Cape Cod, and the largest since 1969. It followed a record flight on Cape Ann the day before. These big flights usually follow sustained east winds but it’s not clear why so many years pass between big flights.”

Ellis said the team was “extremely grateful” to the Center of Coastal studies for their willingness to help get these birds back out on the water.

Jooke Robbins, senior scientist, Center for Coastal Studies, said, “We had to move away from the dovekies quickly when we released them, because boats attract gulls (which can be predators). But they both looked oriented and we saw them get together and start to preen. We waited to release them until we got to a spot with other dovekies in the area.”

Dovekie are small sea-faring birds that get their name from their stocky bodies and dove-like appearance.

They are a member of the Alcid family, related to puffins and murres. Dovekies are the most abundant alcid found in North Atlantic waters. Over winter dovekies breed in the high-arctic and Greenland, in massive groups numbering into the millions.

Their breeding habitat is coastal cliffs. This species is a true pelagic – only coming to land to breed.

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