For the Birds Radio Program: Alaska Alcids
One of the thrills of going to a new place is seeing things you never find at home. When I was in Alaska, there were plenty of familiar birds and some I don’t get to see very often, but the most thrilling for me were the true ocean birds of the auk family, also called alcids. Birds in the auk family are ecologically northern counterparts of penguins, but though they look a lot like penguins and feed like them, they are fully capable of flight.
The alcid that was most abundant was the Marbled Murrelet, which I saw every one of the seven days of my cruise through the Inside Passage. Murrelets are chunky, about the size of a fat robin with a short, stubby tail and a thick neck, and weigh in at a little over half a pound. They were fairly nondescript, their dark and white colors sort of jumbled like someone was wiping off a paintbrush. They swim in pairs, diving for fish and mollusks. And like other alcids, they use their wings to propel themselves under water, opening the wings as they dive. Very few nesting Marbled Murrelets have ever been found, but the handful of birds sitting on eggs that have been discovered were nesting on lichen-covered rocks in mountains, or on branches of trees.
I saw another common alcid, the Pigeon Guillemot, almost every day. They’re a bit larger, but in the water seem more slender and delicate appearing than murrelets. Guillemots are black with a big white patch on their wings and bright red mouth linings. On our cruise, we came upon a few nesting guillemots on cliffs, where they stood about like penguins.
The other alcids that we saw on the cruise were the Common Murre, which looks like an all-dark guillemot with a longer bill, Kittlitz’s Murrelet, similar to the Marbled Murrelet only with white near the rump, the Ancient Murrelet, dark bodied with clean black and white markings on the head, Cassin’ s Auk.let, an all-dark, chunky and confused looking alcid, and my favorites, the puffins. On my trip we saw both the bizarre Tufted Puffin with its funky yellow hairdo and the beautiful yet comical-looking Homed Puffin, that looks just the way a puffin should look.
Only one alcid has ever lost the ability to fly–the Great Auk of the Atlantic ocean, which is now extinct. Alcid wings are small enough to be useful underwater, and just barely big enough to fly, so they can’t take off from a sitting position. Most nest on steep cliffs at the edge of the ocean. I watched puffins and guillemots jump off the cliff beating their wings furiously, but they dropped like a rock for 30 or 40 feet before they slowed down at all. In a few cases, the bird never did get airborne, but simply ended up falling into the water, wings still beating. The rest managed to take off before they hit, but usually just barely-one bird made it by inches. The few I saw take off from water ran on the surface a long distance, wings beating, before they were airborne.
Once in the air, alcids can fly surprisingly far. There are two records of tiny Dovekies from the Atlantic Ocean turning up in both Wisconsin and Minnesota, and 5 Wisconsin and 6 Minnesota records of Ancient Murrelets as well. In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book The Long Winter, she describes a little auk-like bird that turned up on their pond after a huge snowstorm. Most of these out-of-place birds are found dead or emaciated, and just about all the rest have been collected for science. I love adding rare birds to my state lists, but if one of these little seabirds turned up close to home, even a puffin, I’d pass on chasing it down. What joy could I possibly get from a hungry, lost soul so very far from home?