Driveway Dovekie and Bathtub Puffin: How Cape Cod Copes with Storm Wrecked Birds

Feb 1, 2017

Here in coastal Massachusetts, we have some unique bird problems. Such as, what to do with that Dovekie in your driveway? Or, how did that puffin get in my bathtub? Both of these things actually happened, and, believe it or not, they are not isolated incidents.

So how does a seabird get from its Arctic nesting cliffs to your driveway? We live in a place with a lot of two things – seabirds and nor’easters. All winter long, seabirds from further north are moving around the Gulf of Maine. Some are well offshore, like puffins and murres, and others within sight of land, like Razorbills and gannets. When a classic New England nor’easter comes along, it can pick up a lot of those offshore seabirds and drive them down into Cape Cod Bay where the arm of the Cape tends to trap them, at least temporarily.

The strong fliers buck the gale, hugging the north and west facing bay beaches as they navigate back out to the open Atlantic. But others, like tiny Dovekies and other alcids, can get blown inland where they end up stranded.

Dovekies and murres tend to nest on or near cliffs that allow them to sort of drop into mid-air when taking off. As a result, they are not good at taking off from flat ground, especially with a lot of obstacles in the way like trees, parked cars and your neighbor’s dog. When they get blown inland, they will die if not found and brought to a wildlife rehabilitator.

Last week’s storm produced a bit of a Dovekie “wreck”, as it’s called, with a couple dozen birds found on beaches and also in parking lots and yards well inland. Historically, these wrecks were bigger, with as many as 18,000 Dovekies seen passing Rockport one day in 1969, and 12,000 in Chatham during a 1957 storm. Sometimes hundreds were stranded during these massive  flights, with some turning up as far inland as Berkshire County. Huge wrecks like this haven’t happened since 1974, but smaller ones still often follow winter storms.

Wild Care in Eastham ended up with last week’s crop of storm-tossed Dovekies and, as usual, took great care of them. Many have already been released after being nursed back to health with a patented slurry of zooplankton and vitamins that only a Dovekie could love. Think of it as a seabird smoothie. All were tested in a cold water pool to ensure their feathers were waterproof and ready to go.

As usual, the best place to watch for storm-blown birds last week was First Encounter Beach in Eastham. The usual assortment of wind-beaten local seabird aficionados was on hand early last Wednesday morning. They had timed it perfectly - the winds had swung around to the northwest, and were pushing the birds close to shore as they sought to wing their way out of the bay. While the numbers weren’t overwhelming, the quality of the birds was off the charts. Over 22 Atlantic Puffins flew past over the course of the morning, along with 10 Thick-billed Murres, 58 Dovekies, and even two Pomarine Jaegers, a species once unheard of in January. When it comes to storm birding, we are the envy of the birding world here on Cape Cod.

Oh, about that bathtub puffin: a few years ago, a Wellfleet shellfisherman found a stranded puffin on his oyster grant. Not sure what to do until he could get it some help, he did the logical thing and put it in his bathtub, where it paddled around like some sort of high-end rubber ducky. They called me and we got that bird to Wild Care, so all ended well.

As much as I’m sure you’d love to have a Dovekie or a puffin in your own bathtub, do make sure to call your local wildlife rehabber if you find one – it’s the only way to ensure the bird survives. And besides, you do NOT want to know what your blender would smell like after making all of those seabird smoothies.