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Happening NOW: Alcid Invasion on the East Coast

With Jerald Reb

Several years ago from Ocean City Inlet in Worcester County, Maryland I was standing at the end of a long exposed jetty. It was a bitterly cold and excessively windy day. As I watched, every now and then a few small, black-and-white shapes hurtled out of the surf and shot up the coast before disappearing back below the surf and spray. These blips on the wind-torn horizon were distant Razorbills, the most  common representative of the alcid family in the mid-Atlantic. Most years, Razorbills and other alcids are fairly scarce away from a few reliable seawatching sites, where they can be observed during migration–that was certainly the story the year that I was watching them at Ocean City Inlet. However, some years these birds undergo movements that bring exceptional numbers of them far and wide. This has been one of those years.

This winter’s fantastic movement of alcids began in mid-December with a large push of Razorbills off the coast of New Jersey. December 17th featured over 200 individuals, with most northbound and only a few heading south. The next few days saw larger flights, averaging about 700 individuals per day, with the majority of these being southbound birds. The official Avalon Seawatch count ended on December 22nd, so data after that date are less consistent. That being said, we do know that the most impressive flight of this movement occurred well after the count period ended, on January 9th. From Avalon, Tom Reed counted over 10,000 Razorbill over the course of 4 hours, as well as 2 Dovekies, a Thick-billed Murre, and 1,000 large alcid sp., which were presumed to be additional Razorbills.

Razorbills, like these birds seen off of North Carolina last month, have been the majority of this alcid invasion, but other species have been seen as well.

Large flights did occur elsewhere in the northeast, including in New York, Massachusetts, and Maine. Delaware also produced a count of note; during a count conducted from Cape Henlopen State Park on December 30th, 346 southbound Razorbill were observed. This more than tripled the previous state high count, which was set on a pelagic outing. Despite this singular high count, there is a data gap along the coasts of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, most likely due to lack of serious seawatching effort from these areas.

There were multiple other notable alcid sightings along the East Coast. These include: Black Guillemots from North Carolina, New Jersey, and New York; Thick-billed Murres (the more expected murre from shore) in multiple states, including Maryland, New Jersey, and New York; Common Murres, decidedly rare from shore, were seen in New Jersey, New York, and Delaware; Dovekies were also been seen all along the east coast in slightly higher than-typical numbers; they have occured in every state from Maine to North Carolina.

What causes these movements is somewhat mysterious, as is why they last as long or as short as they do. One interesting thing about this year’s alcid invasion, is the prolonged period over which it has occured. While it seems as though the peak occurred in late December and early January, new sightings continue to roll in from up-and down the East Coast. Furthermore, the data gap in several mid-Atlantic states means that new high counts, exciting state records, and fascinating observations as to the direction and manner of flock movement could all be waiting for a patient and careful observer. Submit your sightings to eBird, your local listservs and Facebook groups, and look for updates from the team at North American Birds as the situation continues to evolve.

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Mike Hudson

Mike Hudson

Editor, North American Birds at American Birding Association
Mike Hudson is Editor of North American Birds. He grew up within sight of Baltimore, Maryland. Living in the city, he developed an interest in urban birds, and the differences in distribution he observed between rural and urban areas. He is also fascinated by the forces that drive changes in bird distribution, from climate and weather to competing species. Mike works at the Chester River Field Research Station where he assists with the seasonal bird banding operations there. He has also been an educator at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, where he taught about ecology and conservation and he has been staff at multiple ABA young birder camps and events.
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