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Monday, January 16, 2012

A Bird In The Hand Is Worth A Dovekie In The Bush

As the old saying goes, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. That is, what you have is not worth sacrificing for something that merely could be better. The adage is used as a cautionary tale, but today, as James and I birded the Outer Banks on his way back to William and Mary, I learned that this proverb may, in fact, be totally wrong.

As James and I passed over the Bonner Bridge, we noticed a bunch of cormorants hanging out on a couple of roped pylons just offshore in the placid, glass-like waters of the Pamlico Sound. Scoping them out, I found a Great Cormorant towering over its numerous Double-crested cousins.

“Hey, we should photograph the Great! It’s in pretty good light right now,” I shouted over to James, who was already checking out the mergansers in the small bay.

“No,” he maintained. “I’d rather see what’s out at the end of the jetty.” Fair enough. After yesterday’s strong winds topped 20 mph, I couldn’t refuse a day of sea-watching across a calm Atlantic Ocean scarcely able to create a single white-capped wave.

Walking around the stone wall that lined the bay, James noticed a rustling in the nearby grass. “What do you think it is?” he asked. Several birds called from just inside the chest-height blades.

“I dunno,” I replied. “I hear a Savannah Sparrow and a Towhee in there.” It had to be one of those. Towhees especially are well known for turning over the undergrowth with their legs, looking for food. But because most birds hop around, their rustling often sounds rhythmical, unlike this. This sounded random.

“It sounds like a mammal,” James said. It would make sense. We’d seen some cotton rats recently, and their skittering through fields and briers sounded pretty similar. “I think I can see it,” he continued. “Take a step into the reeds, you should be able to flush it towards me.”

As I advanced, the Savannah Sparrow and Eastern Towhee both flushed past James, landing in the dunes on the other side. I couldn’t locate the source of the sound, but I could definitely hear it again.

“I see it!” James exclaimed. “It’s a… bird?”


“Yeah, it’s black and white… like a Razorbill. I’m not sure what it is though!”

As I continued into the tall grass, I finally saw the source of the rustling. Flailing around on the ground in front of me, unable to fly, was an unmistakably tiny Dovekie, a rare little auk scarcely larger than the common Northern Cardinal. Assuming it had a hurt wing, I picked it up so it wouldn’t become food for a feral cat, or some native predator.

I'm probably one of only a few people ever to hold their lifer Dovekie!

James and I rejoiced in our find, and called out to a passing group of birders. They knew the name of a wildlife rehabber we could take the bird to. But one of them came up with an alternative theory.

“You know, it could’ve overshot the ocean with these winds we’ve been having. Maybe it just can’t take off?”

I hadn’t thought of that possibility, but he was right. Like grebes and loons, Dovekies and most other auks have their webbed feet set far back on their body. As obligate divers, a Dovekie’s feet and wings work in perfect synergy, allowing them to swiftly locate and capture prey underwater; however, in order to take off, they have to get a running start before there’s enough air over their wings for flight.

I call this one, "As Close As You Can Get To A Dovekie Without Getting Wet".

I’d been restraining the bird’s wings so it wouldn’t flap and perhaps injure itself further, but upon moving my hand, the Dovekie gave several strong flaps, its wings slapping against my extended arms. The bird certainly seemed healthy, so we cautiously walked over the large rocks that divided the parking lot from the bay, and headed down to the beach.

When I say it's a small bird, I mean it's tiny. At least, compared to me it is!

Surrounded by birders as if it were some kind of ceremony, I carefully placed the Dovekie on the packed sand just a couple feet from the gently lapping waters of the Atlantic. James was going to try and photograph it in situ on the beach, but as soon as I let go my hands, the bird pattered its feet across the sand and seamlessly continued into the ocean before finally alighting. The bird flapped its stubby wings for all their worth and before we could comprehend what happened, the bird had flown around side of the Oregon Inlet jetty and out of sight.

Sure it's blurry, but it remains the only record of my "Free Willy" moment.

After parting ways with the passing birders (who, it turned out, shared pretty much our exact birding agenda for the day), James and I decided to walk the length of the jetty and see if perhaps the Dovekie had decided to grab a quick bite to eat in the breakers off the point. Along the way, I heard an odd sound that made me turn around – but there was nothing. I heard it again – puff! – and this time I could see the dorsal fin of a Bottlenose Dolphin breach the surface not fifty feet away! But not just one – a whole pod of dolphins made its way down the jetty rocks, surfacing to exhale every so often, all of them very close. What a sight to behold!

And it was low tide too! Must've been shallow out there!

Reaching the end of the jetty, we found a whole load of nothing. Apparently, the windless day meant that pelagic birds could spend their time far out at sea, and even the formerly common Northern Gannets were relegated to white specks over a mile offshore. So we turned around, noting more dolphins on the way (can I reiterate, awesome?) but nothing else of note. Once we returned to the parking lot, James noticed the cormorants remained on the pylons, and sure enough the Great Comorant stuck around too. We got our photograph and retreated for the car to plan the rest of our excursion.

Large and in charge.

So, at least today, the old “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” phrase ended up being totally untrue. We had our bird, we left it, and we got a better one. As it turns out, in fact, a bird in the hand is worth exactly one awesome Dovekie.


  1. Nice dude! A friend of mine found a dovekie one time - I got to see it in the bathtub before it went to a rehabber, but I couldn't put it on the list.

  2. @Robert - Thanks man!

    @Aaron - List-wise, that sucks, but at least you got to see it! Next time I find one I'll let you know, and you can make the eight hour drive out to tick it, lol.

  3. A Dovekie in the Glovekie!