Winter Pelagic Birding - finding gold of the black and white kind!

lcids are the 'bread-and-butter' of winter pelagic trips off the eastern seaboard of North America. Razorbills are probably the most likely species with Dovekie, Common and Thick-billed Murres as the supporting cast. Atlantic Puffin and Black Guillemot are outside possibilities on any trip, particularly the former. Encountering alcids at sea in winter is a very different experience from seeing them at breeding colonies in the summer and offers some interesting identification challenges. This page showcases a collection of photographs on recent See Life Paulagic trips off northern New Jersey.

Razorbill (Alca torda)

In comparison to other alcids, Razorbills show a general preference for shallower water (especially areas with rocky bottom and strong currents) and this probably explains why they are the most likely alcid to be seen from shore or close-to-shore along the coasts of New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. Razorbills are abundant on the Georges Bank and Nantucket Shoals off Massachusetts and in the tidal rips between Montauk Point, New York and Block Island, Rhode Island. Smaller numbers winter all along the coast, often near or in tidal inlets and river mouths. Winter storms or changes in food supply may drive birds along the shore as they move to more sheltered bays (e.g. movements past Race Point on Cape Cod or past Cape Ann) and some may be pushed further south as the winter progresses. Interestingly, Razorbills are relatively resistant to being driven inland by major storms and thus sightings from lakes or non-tidal sections of rivers are very significant events.

Fig. 2. Razorbill in flight, at sea off Belmar New Jersey 29 Jan 2005.
Razorbills take to the wing fairly readily, flying from one feeding area the next often mixed with flocks of scoter. In winter, the throat and chin are white, separated from the underparts by a obvious black wedge.The area in front of the eye remains dark giving a less white-faced impression than Common Murre.

Fig. 3. Razorbill in flight, at sea off Belmar New Jersey 29 Jan 2005.
This adult has retained or perhaps regrown the flattened bill plates typical of breeding Razorbills, complete with the vertical white stripe near the center.

Fig. 4. First-winter Razorbill at sea off Belmar New Jersey 29 Jan 2005.
When this young bird raised its wings, the white underwing coverts are obvious.

Fig. 5. First-winter Razorbill at sea off Belmar New Jersey 29 Jan 2005.
First-winter Razorbills can be confused with Thick-billed Murres due to the reduced bill and black rather than brown upperparts. However, the pale feathering of the throat extends right up onto the ear coverts and above, giving a more extensive area of white on the head. In addition, the long tail upward pointed tail is often an immediate give-away that this is a Razorbill rather than a murre.

Fig. 6. Razorbill at sea off Belmar New Jersey 29 Jan 2005.
The bill of this adult is deeper and more reminiscent of the distinctive bill of breeding birds. There is even a hint of the verticle white line at the center of the bill. Notice the raised tail and curve of white feathering behind the eye.

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica)

Fig. 7. Atlantic Puffin at sea off Belmar New Jersey 31 Dec 2004.
After the breeding season, the outer layers of the bill fall off and decrease its size and color. The face and cheeks become darker gray , especially around and in front of the eye. The bill is even smaller in first-year birds inviting confusion with Dovekie. Puffins often seem smaller than most people expect, especially if Razorbills and murres have been seen earlier in a trip. They float quite high on the water, with an oddly large headed look to them. With good views, you might be able to see a smudge of dark feathering interupting the white underparts at the thigh. In flight, puffins appear more compact than Razorbills will blunt head and tail ends. The wings are relatively short, and almost seem insufficient to keep the bird aloft. The dusky underwings and lack of a white trailing edge are useful for identification, although care must be taken not to be fooled by female Long-tailed Ducks which can look superficially similar.

It is presumed that many if not all of the Atlantic Puffins off the Atlantic Seaboard come from breeding colonies in the Gulf of St. Lawrence or from Newfoundland. In winter, most will disperse into deep water along the edge of the continental shelf, often reaching as far south as Virginia and the Carolinas. In New England, the northern edge of George's Bank is a particularly important wintering area.

Dovekie [Little Auk] (Alle alle)

Figs. 8 & 9. Dovekie off Belmar New Jersey 31 Dec 2004
These starling-sized seabirds breed in immense colonies in the High-Arctic and disperse broadly across the North Atlantic during the winter. The Grand Banks, Newfoundland coast, Scotian Shelf and northeastern edges of Georges Bank represent important wintering areas. Studies suggest that the winter diet consists primarily of copepods. Prolonged periods of bad weather may prevent birds from feeding and they may become weak and emaciated. Although Dovekies are much smaller than other Atlantic alcids this can be difficult to judge at sea. Like young Razorbills and Thick-billed Murres, the dark bill merges neatly with the head. When approached by a boat Dovekies often dive excitedly, seeming not to know how to deal with the situations. Others will dive and surface a distance away or simply take flight and disapper. In flight, Dovekies speed past on tiny whirring wings. The undersides of the wings are dusky, a character shared with Puffins but the white wraps around onto the rump more obviously. Be aware that in strong sunlight, the wings can reflect the light thus looking paler. First-winter birds are very similar to adults except that the upperparts may be slightly browner.

Thick-billed Murre (Uria lomvia)

Fig. 10. Thick-billed Murre off Belmar New Jersey 29 Jan 2005.
The white flanks lack the obvious steaking of Common Murre. Although winter Thick-billed Murres develop less white on the head than Common Murres (essentially restricted to the throat) it is important to remember than Common Murres begin molting into summer plumage in October!

Fig. 11. Thick-billed Murre off Belmar New Jersey 29 Jan 2005.
Historically, Thick-billed Murres have shown the much greatest tendency to be displaced inland than other alcid species. In 1950 for example, a major storm propelled hundreds if not thousands of birds onto the Great Lakes, presumably due to the funneling effect of the St. Lawrence River. In flight, Thick-billed Murres look heavy, pot-bellied almost with a rounded back and short neck. The stubbier bill and jet black upperparts combines to give a more Razorbill-like profile than Common Murre, which appear browner and more elongated with an obvious neck separating the head from body. Good view of Thick-billed Murres should reveal at least a hint of the white stripe at the base of the upper mandible. Separating adults from first winter birds can be difficult, although the bills of younger birds tend to be shorter than adults.

Manx Shearwater (Puffinus puffinus)

Fig. 12. Manx Shearwater at sea off Belmar New Jersey 4 Dec 2004.
Not all of the black-and-white birds in winter are alcids! Although the majority winter in the southern hemisphere, principally off South America, small numbers of Manx Shearwater remain off the coasts of eastern North America in the winter. This individual was attracted to the chumming off the stern, diving beneath the gulls to snatch chunks of fish as they sank. Notice the narrow crescent of white cutting into the dark feathering on the side of the neck, just behind the ear coverts. This is an excellent mark for Manx rather than Audubon's Shearwater.

Common Loon (Gavia immer)

Fig. 13. Common Loon, Montauk Harbor, New York 16 Jan 2006.
Winter pelagic trips often encounter loons, generally within a few miles of land but occasionally further offshore. They share the dark upper- and white under-parts of the previous species. Common Loons are readily distinguished from alcids by their massive size - they remind me a WW I era battleships - but smaller Red-throated Loons can be more problematic, especially in choppy water. The photograph above shows a typical adult Common Loon. In addition to the characteristic uneven junction between dark and light plumage along the neck, notice the dark ridge of the upper mandible. This feature is absent in Yellow-billed Loon, an extreme rarity to the region. Some Common Loons have very pale gray bills with almost no colour along the cutting edge or at the tip - prompting misidentification. However, they invariably have some black along this ridge.

Getting to grips with winter alcids!

Although alcids can be viewed from shore (e.g. Montauk Point, NY, Cape Ann and Race Point, MA, Point Judith, RI etc), and may even come into harbors (e.g. Province Town and Wellfleet, MA) after prolonged periods of bad weather, there is nothing like seeing them in the natural element, the open sea. See Life Paulagics runs a number of winter trips exploring alcid-rich area in New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.

Cover of The AuksThe Auks: Alcidae (Bird Families of the World, Vol. 5) by Anthony J. Gaston, Ian L. Jones, Ian Lewington. Published in April 1998 by Oxford Univ Press (ISBN: 0198540329). Superb account of all living alcids (murres, puffins, auklets, murrelets etc). Somewhat expensive but very comprehensive and well-produced. The fact-filled text is accompanied by many useful maps, line drawing, facts and figures. I especially enjoyed the chapters on fossil auks and the evolution of the group as a whole, particular the discussion of relatively recent colonization of the Pacific Ocean. Attractive set of color plates by Ian Lewington. A must for serious alcid fans!

Text and photographs copyright of Angus Wilson/Ocean Wanderers © 2005, 2006 All rights reserved.
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