Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Dovekies on the Move
December 09, 2022
By Steve Grinley
One of the thrills of birding is that moment, or that day, when you are left in awe over the experience. The experience seems so surreal that it feels like a dream. The last one was that amazing warbler “fallout” on Plum Island that I wrote about back in May. Prior to that it was the “bird of the century”, the Steller’s Sea Eagle that was discovered in Dighton last December. Both events took our breath away.
Last Tuesday was another one of those days. It started off innocent enough – no special storms or weather events to raise suspicion that it could be a remarkable birding day. It was a relatively calm December day, slightly above normal temperatures and light southeast winds.
Then the reports started coming in. First, from Tom Wetmore who was sea watching at Lot 7 on Plum Island. He reported at least 60 dovekies moving south, including a large flock of 40 birds. Moments later he reported 15 more. Then 15 more. Then 30 more, but he had to leave. Then saying that he couldn’t leave – 55 more!
Doug Chickering also posted from Lot 7 that he had 600 dovekies in an hour! Tom then received a text from Rick Heil who had 700 dovekies in 11 minutes on Cape Ann, some passing overhead! Rick was heading for Andrew Point, so our plan was to head there too!
Dovekies are one of our smallest alcids, seabirds that nest high in the arctic. They are less than 8 inches long, chubby with a stubby bill and relatively long wings. They do make it down to the New England coast in the winter, but they are often hard to find. There are winters when we scramble to see one dovekie, let alone tens or hundreds!
We arrived at Andrew’s Point in Rockport around noon, about an hour after Rick. He had already tallied more than a thousand dovekies moving south, as well as high number of common murres. We set up our scopes and immediately watched tens of dovekies stream through our field of view.
To see so many of these usually elusive small birds streaming endlessly through our scopes was mesmerizing. It was like seeing that sea eagle last December – all I could say was wow! As I looked at a flock of dovekies moving across the sea, my view would be interrupted with 3 or 4 razorbills or murres crossing their path. Or when I peered at one of the many kittiwakes flying by, a flock of dovekies would draw my attention away.
Rick described it as an “Allepalooza!! Epic dovekie flight ongoing during the entire period; individual and flocks up to 30-40 individuals constantly in view, many passing very close, even along and even over the rocky shoreline, but majority farther offshore; all moving NW to ESE; occasionally a small flock would drop in briefly with the eiders and scoters at the point. I’m kicking myself for not starting here at first light, but such an incredible flight was not expected under light to moderate SE winds; had I been here all day I’m guessing I would have tallied 15,000+.”
Rick’s total was 7250 dovekies that day, which was his highest count in the past 48 years of sea watching at Andrews Point. We estimated 5400 dovekies during our time there that day. It seemed surreal – almost unbelievable. I don’t remember ever seeing more than a dozen in a day.
Meanwhile, at the viewing platform at Lot 7 on Plum Island, Doug Chickering was with Tom Wetmore and others and reported the following:
“It was a perfect December day. A slight wind off the water was not unpleasant and it would be a while before the chill settled in. It was cloudy which removed the glare of the low sun, yet the air was dry and visibility perfect to the horizon. In short, a perfect December morning.
“I sat there with my friends, on the deck at Parking Lot 7, not yet cold, filled with a special exhilaration, and was transfixed. Transfixed by the stream of dovekies passing under the lee of Cape Ann, as seen from Parking lot 7 on Plum Island. All of them heading south, Sometimes in pairs or small groups of a half dozen. Sometimes in streams as long as forty, or maybe fifty birds long.
There was an intense determination in the frantic flying, and an almost desperate quality as they skimmed just inches above the surf. The flocks were fluid with a cluster of birds up front, possibly vying for the lead, and a string of birds behind them. Usually there was a trailing bird at the end of the flock. Sometimes the flocks would be close and he identification clear and unambiguous, sometimes distant, but still reliably identified by their unique flight style and by their small size.
There was a dreamlike quality to the three hours I stayed and got colder. The spectacle before me was as rare as it was compelling. It seemed as if every time I looked though my scope there would be a flock of dovekies, scurrying over the water. I have been birding, seriously, for four decades and this was the most dovekies I had ever seen; cumulatively. My final count 1319 birds. And that is an undercount.”
Rick went back to Andrew’s Point on Wednesday and saw another 4250 dovekies!