Small seabirds the size of starlings were storm-driven by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, onto Nova Scotia's shoreline two weekends ago, turning Seaforth's Hope for Wildlife into both a rescue and information center for them. While exact numbers are not known, dovekies or little auks have in the past been stranded by high winds along the Atlantic coast in the tens of thousands.
Hope for Wildlife says that over the two days Jan. 20 to Jan. 21 they received 58 calls from people who found trapped birds. Calls came in from the South Shore to Cape Breton and places in between. In addition, about 40 birds were brought in directly for care.
Dovekies are divers, and like the loon and other true water birds cannot walk on land. Their feet have evolved far back on their bodies for maximum underwater propulsion at the cost of the ability to stand. Once driven onto land, they cannot take off again.
Known to many fishermen as bull birds for their stocky shape, dovekies live most of their lives on the open ocean and are much better swimmers than fliers. The only time they usually push themselves ashore is to nest in Greenland or on the Arctic islands. Each autumn they move south to winter on the Scotian Shelf off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.
According to Hope for Wildlife director Hope Swinimer, people panic when they see dovekies flopping around in seaside rocks or bushes.
"Most people don't know they can't take off from land. They just need a little help getting back to the ocean. They're trapped until they get help back to the water," she explained.
Because they are out of their element on land, they are easy victims for both winged and four-footed predators.
"A couple of the calls to us reported they were being attacked by crows," Swinimer said, "and people were rescuing birds while other animals were moving in on them."
Most of those rescued had nothing physically wrong with them, although people assumed they did because they couldn't fly. Only one of the birds received at the rehab farm died.
"People just don't know what they are but even over the phone I could deal with a lot of the issues. What I get people to check first is hydration. You can usually tell that by looking at their eyes. Then I always get them to make sure both wings are working, which they can do by putting them in their palm and dropping the hand down. The wings will come out and flap. Rather than getting them to bring them to me, it makes better sense for me to tell them to put them right back out into the ocean," Swinimer said.
Changing climate is said to be affecting the dovekie population. Local fishermen have told Swinimer they often saw dovekies when the winters were colder.
"I've heard stories from the old timers, even here in Seaforth. They say that they used to come in on the ice flows and there would be thousands of them, right here where I live," said Swinimer.
Ray MacLeod is a freelance outdoors writer. He lives in Waverley.