Saturday, January 5, 2013

Flying Penguins, Dead Razorbills and the Big Birding Drama Unfolding in FL

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 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 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.

Lillian Stokes


  1. Great post, Lillian! Informative, educational and pleasure for the eyes! I'd love to see one. Once drove 3 hours to Andrews Point on Cape Ann in vain. That was before I started relying on sightings reported on the various bird listservs.

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Hilke. Yes, the birding list serves are such a good source of find where birds are in an area. I have been lucky to go to Machias Seal Island, off of Maine, to see breeding Razorbills, that's where I got the shots of the breeding plumage Razorbills.

  3. Fascinating post Lillian. Really great images and interesting discussion on the on-going drama.

  4. Thanks, Robert. It is an ongoing drama, with the Razorbills in the middle of it. We are watching it play out before our eyes. They are such adorable birds, our hearts go out to them.

  5. Great post Lillian! I've been following the Razorbill invasion, but haven't been lucky enough to see one yet! Your photos are excellent!

  6. What a superb post, Lillian. We've been watching this exciting, fascinating, and sobering drama play out, and it's a great opportunity to learn more about this from people on the scene like you and Don. You have to wonder how many more of these dramas we will see unfold as they planet continues to warm.

    I wanted to offer special thanks for the conservation message you closed with. Wonderfully written and perfectly stated, my friend!

  7. Thanks so much Tammy and Kim, it is a big drama unfolding daily. The Town of Sanibel is sending out a press release to all the papers on the Razorbills, using my photos with it. We will see more stories like this in the future, so important for us all to advocate for birds, something you do with excellence, KIm!

  8. My daughter found the remains of a Razorbill, last week, on the beach near John's Pass, Treasure Island. She sent me a picture from her phone. Such a sad situation! Jan Ferrell

  9. Excellent post. Saw Razorbills off coast of NC after Christmas.

  10. Excellent post! Very informative. I have heard about the Razorbills on Anna Maria and hope to be able to see them on my next trip to the west coast of Florida. Terrific suggestions you offer here to birders concerning situations such as this. Your photographs of these fascinating birds are superb!

  11. I volunteer for Save Our Seabirds in Sarasota. We were talking about these little guys the other day. My hope is to not see one come into the sactuary, however, if one does we will do our very best to rehab and release it.

  12. This was a fascinating read. Very cool to have a rare bird show up, but unnerving at the same time. -Josh

  13. This was a fascinating read. Very cool to have a rare bird show up, but unnerving at the same time. -Josh

  14. Lillian, thank you so much for writing about this and making myself and others aware of what is going on. the photos are fantastic as always and the info timely and important. I love it that you encourage others to use eBird! I will share this story on my Facebook page!

  15. Thank you KathieAnd others, I wanted to make more people aware of the situation here and the ramifications of it and to encourage others to do what they can for birds. There will be other situations like this in the future and as birders we should all do what we can to help, even if it's just educating others about the plight of the birds.