Finding Dovekies: Seawatching in Maine
Updated: Feb 4
Last week I led a seabird identification workshop for York County Audubon at the Cliff House near Ogunquit, a really enjoyable morning with many interested folks. I started by saying that, for me, birding in winter in Maine means seawatching. Seawatching demands a different set of skills from the fieldcraft and detailed local knowledge that is so useful for standard terrestrial birding. It also requires a different outlook entirely, you must find a sheltered nook, face the ocean, and patiently wait for the birds to come to you, or in reality, pass you many hundreds of meters away.
I've only been to my favourite seawatching spot, Two Lights State Park on Cape Elizabeth, three times so far this winter, but each time has been memorable, primarily because it seems to be a good year for dovekies (or little auks as we call them in Europe). These most tiny of the auk (or alcid) family, and relative of the puffin, were almost absent from the Maine coast last year. In fact I only saw a single far-off speck of one after many more seawatching sessions last winter, but this winter they seem fairly easy to find, with 10+ seen on multiple trips. However, it often takes a practiced eye to pick them out, so here are my five top dovekie-spotting tips:
1. Use a spotting scope - This isn't really a tip, and applies to all seawatching, but the increased viewing distance of a scope is incredibly useful when identifying passing specks. If you can borrow one, do it.
2. Start early - In my past three visits to Two Lights SP, dovekie activity dropped off significantly after 09:30 or so, and I often did not see any after 10:00. This might be simply because they move offshore, or that they stop to feed on the surface and become almost impossible to pick out at any distance.
3. Watch the horizon - I like to check the water nearby to make sure there are no birds close to me that I might otherwise miss, but most dovekies you will see will be flying past and often at a distance. I suggest scanning slowly back and forth or simply fixing your view on a single point and waiting for birds to pass. I like the view of the ocean through my scope to include about 20% sky over the horizon, just in case of passing gannets or kittiwakes. Make sure to look straight out to sea to ensure passing birds will enter your field of view when they are closest to you.
4. Learn that silhouette - Nothing else has the shape and proportions of a dovekie. The body is the shape of a football, with the bill being so tiny it is essentially invisible, and the thick neck blending into the stocky body. The legs and tail are also very short, giving dovekies a symmetrical appearance on either side of the short, whirring wings. While both razorbills and murres are also black above and white below, both have far more attenuated bills and tails.
5. Try to gauge size - Size should only ever be a supporting clue as it is very easy to misjudge, especially when the bird is out at sea, however the truly minuscule size of the dovekie is diagnostic. Try and follow a flying bird to assess it's size against bouys or other birds, if a nearby eider looks as large as a swan, you might be watching a dovekie.
Hopefully these tips, and a little time and luck, will result in you finding your own dovekie in Maine this winter. These tiny plankton-feeding birds brave the elements at sea all winter in order to return to their high-Arctic breeding colonies in Greenland in the summer, an astonishing lifecycle for such a tiny creature.
While looking for dovekies don't forget to appreciate the breeding plumage of our many wintering seaducks, seven of which should be easy to pick out at many sites over winter (the common eider, white-winged, black and surf scoters, long-tailed ducks, harlequin ducks, and red-breasted mergansers), as well as other alcids such as razorbills, black guillemots and thick-billed murres.
You might even be lucky enough to find a drake king eider like Nick Lund, Michael Tucker, Julia Gulka and I did at Two Lights SP last week!
By Ed Jenkins