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home : birding w/don reimer : birding w/don reimer
January 29, 2020

1/21/2015 10:29:00 AM
Close Encounters-
Thick-Billed Murre (Photo by Don Reimer)
Thick-Billed Murre (Photo by Don Reimer)
by Don Reimer

Years ago I led a group of youth birders from Bremen's National Audubon Camp on a late-summer field trip to Weskeag Marsh, where shorebird and falcon activity was high. The enthusiastic group watched with awe as an adult Peregrine Falcon chased after maneuvering shorebirds. Some kids were clearly rooting for the falcon: "Whoa!! Go Baby, Go!!" Culling out a single yellowlegs, the relentless falcon struck. The struggling, wounded shorebird spiraled earthward, landing in marsh grasses a hundred yards away. Meanwhile the falcon hovered hopelessly above its intended victim, unable to penetrate the thick cover.

Then I asked the kids: "So, what should we do? Should we go and try to rescue the injured shorebird or let Nature takes its course?" Opinions varied at first, but the final consensus was to leave the shorebird where it lay. Decisions of this kind are sometimes hard to make for kids, and us adults, too.

As a lifelong Nature lover, I recall my 8-year-old granddaughter's whispered side-comment to my wife as I exited our car to retrieve a plodding Painted Turtle from a roadway: "He's always trying to save things," she said. For me, removing a living animal from the busy road was a no-brainer, but whether and when to intervene with vulnerable wildlife is not always clear-cut.

Birders had recently discovered a Thick-Billed Murre at Rockport Harbor. A larger relative of the Atlantic Puffin, this member of the alcid (auk) family nests in Arctic waters. The murre was widely reported, so I arrived for a morning look. Sure enough, the compact black-and-white auk paddled near a front dockside. Tame and confiding, it ignored a harbor fisherman as he rowed within 20 feet on his way to his mooring.

The murre accompanied some mallard ducks, entering a shallow tidal creek at the harbor's head. Minutes later the bird climbed out of the water and wriggled onto a low rock ledge. Except for their brief cliffside nesting season, it is relatively unusual for alcids to leave the water. Their webbed feet, positioned well back on the posterior body, make land movements rather awkward.

After resting for a spell, the murre spread out its wings and ratcheted forward to begin a halting ascent onto a higher clump of rocky seaweed. To my mind, this atypical behavior brought suspicions of possible illness or injury in the bird. Cautiously, I moved toward the spot. The murre was now several feet from the waterline. It had slid between boulders and entangled its wings in seaweed, with just its black head and shoulders exposed.

As I bent down to free the bird, I pondered what to do next? No apparent signs of injury. I could have easily hand-captured the alert bird for possible rehabilitation. But was that option really needed? Maybe the auk had simply made a costly misstep and fallen into the crevasse. There was little time to dither. My close physical presence provided stronger motivation for the murre to elevate itself and gain freedom. Its right wing brushed lightly against my outstretched fingertips as it flopped back toward the creek.

The bird swam with vigor, approaching the harbor entrance. But for this species, swimming and diving functions are two distinct physical disciplines. A deep-dive specialist, Thick-Billeds use their wings to fly underwater to depths exceeding 300 feet. Perhaps I had released a bird that could not dive properly and feed itself.

My concerns were relieved on the following morning as the murre dived repeatedly within the harbor, remaining submerged for a couple of minutes at a time. Those behaviors persuaded me that my previous decision was likely a wise one. If not the case, Nature has the final say.

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