Razorbill, 1st winter
"Seen the Penguins?" the fisherman asked us, as we walked out yesterday with our binos and scopes towards Tarpon Bay on Sanibel Island in FL. Ordinarily we would have wondered just what the fisherman had been drinking, but not now. What he was referring to was the big invasion of Razorbills into Florida waters, on a scale that has never been seen before. The Florida birding listserves are jammed with Razorbill sightings. Birders and photographers are eagerly searching for these about football-sized, black-and-white alcids. Birders in Anna Maria Island, FL, where Razorbills hang out by the fishing piers, are being asked by the fisherman whether penguins can fly. Before this December there had been 14 records of Razorbills in Florida with only 1 record from the Gulf Coast. Now there are hundreds, if not thousands of Razorbills in Florida waters and no one has a definitive answer why.
We are wintering on Sanibel Island and initially we were very excited when we saw our first Razorbill here, riding the waves, quite a distance out off the beach. We have seen many Razorbills on their usual grounds, but, after all, this was our first time to see this species here - the stuff birding dreams are made of. But then a feeling of disturbance began to hit us. This was just not right.
Razorbill, breeding plumage, taken in Maine,
Razorbills live in the cold offshore and nearshore waters of the North Atlantic, mostly over the Continental Shelf and in winter they are rarely found south of Cape Hatteras.
We have seen Razorbills numerous times on Sanibel, from different areas, including 12 Razorbills from Blind Pass on Dec.18th and 10 Razorbills from the Sanibel Lighthouse fishing pier on Dec. 23rd. There one of them came close enough to shore to give me the opportunity to take most of these photos.
It was so fun to watch this Razorbill swim and dive. I was struck by how fast it seemed to move underwater, propelled by its wings. It just zipped!
We were so very saddened when we found a dead Razorbill on the beach, and learned that this is the fate of many of the Razorbills whose bodies are being taken into many of the wildlife rehabilitation clinics in Florida. The wildlife clinic on Sanibel, C.R.O.W., has had 15 dead Razorbills brought in and is treating 2 which were brought in emaciated and with injuries. They are doing well, we hear. We brought our dead Razorbill into C.R.O.W. bagged and labeled where and when it came from, as the The Florida Museum of Natural History has requested of people bringing dead Razorbills into wildlife clinics. They are collecting the Razorbill specimens and doing necropsies to learn more about what is killing them.
The big questions is why are the Razorbills here and why are they dying? Scientists and birders are tracking the Razorbill invasion and people are trying to figure it out. According to an extensive ebird.org article on the Razorbill invasion, alcids (the group of seabirds to which Razorbills belong) change their distribution usually due to food shortages. There has been an unusually high, 4 C above normal, Sea Surface Temperature (SST) rise this November and December along the Continental Shelf from Long Island to MA. This might cause the small fish the Razorbills feed on to disperse elsewhere. At the same time, there may have been a bumper crop of Razorbills born this year in Arctic Canada because of greater food availability during breeding due to, ironically, warmer ocean water allowing some prey items to move northward during that time. Others sources think Superstorm Sandy may have had something to do with the possible lack of food for the Razorbills.
This story is still unfolding and we do not know how it will play out. Just think how hard it must be for the young Razorbills (most of the Florida sightings are of young Razorbills), who, not finding fish in their usual range, have to make a long, long journey, food deprived, then wind up in Florida where the possible food items and predators are completely different than what they are used to. They have to learn what to eat, how to catch it, and how to avoid danger.
Razorbill next to Brown Pelican
One positive thing we have seen recently is Razorbills feeding near Pelicans, gulls, and loons, birds that know where the fish are. Hopefully some Razorbills are learning how to keep surviving.
This Razorbill Invasion raises larger issues. Global climate change, with its disruptive effects on land and ocean, will continue to impact birds. Birders may see more "good birds", birds who are rare because they are in the wrong pace at the wrong time. The darker side is that some of those birds may be struggling to survive and adapt in the face of difficult change.
What can birders do?
- Become knowledgable about bird identification and bird distributions, so you can report your
sightings to ebird.org so bird population trends and distributions can be tracked on a large scale.
- Recruit others into birding and educate them and others about birds and their plight. Happenings like the Razorbill story offers teaching opportunities (we were able to discuss the all the issues the "Penguin sightings" brought up with the fisherman).
- Become a knowledgable advocate for bird conservation and the steps that will help save birds, ranging from drinking shade grown coffee, to responsible placement of wind farms and much more.
- Support bird organizations that will advocate for birds in the face of changing times.
Razorbill, breeding plumage
If we all work for the birds, they may have a chance.