Thursday, January 10, 2013

What the Auk? Razorbills in Florida

By Ed Caum (Photos courtesy of Joe Colontonio)
In an interesting turn of events, Razorbills have recently been seen in Florida waters in astounding numbers. This cold-water bird is normally found offshore in the northern Atlantic with   jaunts as far south as   New Jersey and Virginia.
This medium-sized water bird has a black uppers with a white under parts. Its bill is stout and deep in adults and thinner in immatures. It resembles a penguin at first glance, except it flies. Experts   call these birds alcids, or the auk family, and there are several species - like puffins - that are referred to in that manner. Local birding expert Bill Pranty*, an editor with American Birding Association, and author of A Birder’s Guide to Florida, has viewed Razorbills off of Anclote Gulf Park, Green Key, and Hudson Beach. “There has also been a sighting at Gulf Harbors,” he said.
Local birder, Joe Colontonio was able to get photos of some of them just off the Hudson shoreline.
“You need to look for them at high tide,” Colontonio said. “I haven’t heard of people seeing them during the low.” What brings them to Pasco’s coastline? Pranty says there may be several factors.
“Super Storm Sandy did major damage to the estuaries up north and may have spread pollution into areas that the Razorbills would find food,” he explained.
“ Razorbills also had an had unusually high population growth this last nesting season and the waters off the North Atlantic have gone up several degrees [relating to climate change] so this could also be factors in why they are so far south searching for food.”
Razorbills are from the bird family Alcidae and take three years to reach maturity. Most of the reported sightings in Florida are of immatures; this may be their first migration, which means, with more competition for food along the East Coast, they had to keep moving south to find fish to eat.
“The reports I have heard is the birds are feeding on glass minnows in Florida waters,” said Pranty.  In northern waters, sand eels are one of the food sources available to the Razorbills and the glass minnows in Florida waters are similar in shape and size. Razorbills are powerful swimmers and can dive to considerable depths to capture prey.
“Razorbills literately fly underwater,” said Pranty. “They flap the wings for propulsion and are very agile.”
If the timing of past migrations holds true, (not this one to Florida), then the Razorbills should be around until March.  That’s when they head back north for their nesting season on the cliffs of the cold water islands in the North Atlantic. Because there have never been so many this far south, it will be interesting to see if they all head back or if part of the population remains in Florida waters. These birds are rarely seen on land and rely on the safety of tall cliffs to safely rear their offspring. Florida’s coastline is a far cry from Iceland and Newfoundland terrain.
In the past 120 years of recorded birding history, only 14 razorbills have been recorded in Florida waters, according to Pranty. This current irruption [that’s the technical birding term] is a highly unusual turn of events but the local birders are enjoying being able to check another bird of their life list.
*Bill has been a resident of central Florida since 1978, when he and his parents moved from their native Pittsburgh. He has been birding since age 14 and joined both the American Birding Association (ABA) and Florida Ornithological Society (FOS) in 1984. He has compiled bird sightings statewide for the FOS Field Observations Committee since 1992 and is a former member of the FOS Records Committee.