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Dec 15, 2008 2:14 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

South Fork Outdoors: The little auk comes to Montauk

Dec 15, 2008 2:14 PM

While en route to work at Camp Hero State Park last Wednesday morning, Justin Portell passed a small, odd-looking, black and white colored bird walking down the highway. Stopping for a closer look, he realized it was unable to fly and scooped it up before it became roadkill.

The unusual bird happened to be a dovekie (

Alle alle

), the first one I had ever seen on land, much less in hand. This is a member of the alcid family, a group of oceanic species that only come ashore to nest. According to Hugh McGuiness, this individual may have hit terra firma here in December by accident, mistaking the dark asphalt of Montauk Highway for water. That must have a shock as its webbed feet touched down!

The 1998 edition of “Bull’s Birds of New York State” notes that while their winter range extends south to Long Island, and they may be quite numerous offshore here, “in winter dovekies are more pelagic than most other alcids and are not often seen from shore … almost all observations from shore occur November and December coinciding with storms and easterly winds.”

Three thousand were recorded from the beach between Moriches and Shinnecock inlets during a storm on November 19, 1932. Those were alive. Later that winter, huge numbers of dovekies washed up on beaches from Nova Scotia to Florida, and so many emaciated birds fell from the skies over New York City that the event has been described as “raining dovekies.”

This diminutive bird, the smallest alcid in the North Atlantic and the most abundant one in the world, is also the most numerous seabird in the North Atlantic, with population estimates measured in the tens of millions. Another superlative for this species is found in Arthur Bent’s classic work, “Life Histories of North American Diving Birds”: It regularly nests further north than any other species. This may no longer be the case, as there may be new information since Bent’s publication date of 1919.

Its sheer numbers make it a dominant component of the marine environment, where it feeds on small planktonic shrimp and copepods, as well as the terrestrial environment where it nests. As to the latter, the nutrient-rich guano deposited at their nesting sites results in a particularly luxuriant growth of grasses and sedges that, in turn, support large numbers of snowshoe hares and ptarmigans.

Danish explorer and author Peter Freuchen describes the dovekies, or little auks as they are known in Europe, arriving at their Greenland nesting sites in spring with the passage, “Here it could really be said that ‘the sun is darkened’ by birds.” He also mentions their importance in the arctic food web, specifically as the favorite food of the arctic fox and, when wrapped in seal blubber and allowed to ripen over the summer, a favorite delicacy among the Inuit called Giviak, that Freuchen himself grew to love. The several page description of preparing and consuming this strange meal, as found in Freuchen’s “The Book of the Eskimos,” is quite astonishing.

As we released the dovekie into Block Island Sound, one of its other unique traits became evident: its use of its wings to propel itself through the surf. As with other members of the alcid family, and not unlike the penguins of the South Atlantic, dovekies tuck their webbed feet out of the way and “fly” underwater, easily reaching depths of 80 feet as they hunt for their tiny prey.

Mike Bottini is a naturalist and author of “The Southampton Press Trail Guide to the South Fork,” “Exploring East End Waters: A Natural History and Paddling Guide,” and “The Walking Dunes: East Hampton’s Hidden Treasure.” Check for Mike’s field naturalist classes.

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