Purple Sandpiper (Photos by Don Reimer)
Purple Sandpiper (Photos by Don Reimer)
As spring approaches, birders await the arrival of vibrant, colorful warblers flitting through the treetops. During Maine’s winter period, however, scores of black-and-white birds have dominated the oceanic birding scene. These are members of the auk family, 21 small to medium-sized ocean birds with barrel-shaped bodies, short tails and relatively short wings; legs are set far back on the body, making them awkward on land. Exceptions to this ambulatory scenario are the penguins of Antarctica that make waddling overland journeys between nesting and feeding sites. Due to their hefty weight (Emperor Penguins weigh around 66 pounds) and fixed rigid wings, penguins are rendered flightless.

In eastern North America, the Atlantic Puffin is perhaps the most iconic member of this bi-colored clan, but most puffins spend the bulk of their winter season well offshore. Maine birders have enjoyed nearshore observations of Common and Thick-Billed Murres, Razorbills, Black Guillemots and the tiny, highly sought Dovekies or “Little Auks.”

Thick-Billed Murres were especially abundant in late winter. Found in Arctic waters across the globe for much of the year, most of this population remains north, up to the limits of pack ice. Using their wings to “fly” under water to pursue fish, squid, crustaceans and invertebrate prey, this species is one of the deepest divers of all birds. They routinely plunge to depths exceeding 300 feet and can stay submerged for up to 4 minutes.

My murre photo was taken at Port Clyde, where four Thick-Billed Murres lingered around the inner harbor following a multi-day siege of heavy northeast sea winds and punishing surf. The murre swam nonchalantly toward me, unconcerned by my close presence. As it leaned forward, periodically dipping its head beneath the surface to snatch small organisms, the murre’s bulky webbed feet trailed behind. This species has a relatively thick bill with a horizontal white line accenting the upper mandible.

The Black Guillemot, a fairly common auk that is seen year-round in Maine’s shallow coastal harbors, bays and open seas, is a smaller bird. Its main features include a thin black bill, bright red feet and entirely black plumage. A prominent white shoulder patch is present at all seasons. You may wonder why the gray-plumaged bird in my photo doesn’t quite fit that description. The photo bird is in winter or transitional plumage shared by sub-adults and some adult birds at this season. Many adult guillemots have now attained their full coat of black summer feathers.

With considerable geographic variation in the amount of white in the winter plumage, high-latitude populations show more white background color than southern populations. It is interesting to note that birds such as guillemots that dive very deep to capture fish are generally found in the colder regions. Since fish that inhabit warmer waters tend to swim faster (fish speed doubles in ranges where water temperature goes from 5 to 15 degrees Celsius), the intended prey would exceed auk swimming speeds.

Like other auks, guillemots carry fish crosswise in their bills. Some birds show a consistent marked preference for which way the fish heads point — a possible correlation to “handedness” in humans.

A final word about Dovekie “wrecks.” During intense winter storms, these miniscule auks are blown to inland locations miles from sea. Once landlocked, they are unable to take flight. One such individual ended up in Jefferson some years ago. On another occasion, my Pemaquid birder friend Mark discovered a wrecked Dovekie at roadside in New Harbor. The tiny creature made a valiant effort at escape, causing my friend to slip on an icy surface and assume a temporary prone position in a snowbank. Eventually the evasive little auk was secured, checked for injury and returned to the nearby ocean harbor.