Thursday, February 25, 2016

Thick-billed Murre

Rare Murres Storm-Blown to New Brunswick

Thick-billed Murre [Mark Morse Photo]
Recently one of our severe winter storms caused a rare phenomenon.  Heavy winds blew sea birds landward, birds who normally spend their time at sea.  

Murres are members of the alcid family, birds that typically spend their lives at sea and come to land only to breed.  Members of this family who inhabit our part of the world include puffins, auks and murres.  We have two species of murres, the Common Murre and the Thick-billed Murre.  The Common Murre is just that, common (relatively speaking).  The Thick-billed Murre is rare.  "Birds of New Brunswick: An Annotated List" lists it as an uncommon winter resident and migrant.  

The Thick-billed Murre normally spends its winters far  out to sea.  In summer it comes to land to breed, usually on rocky cliffs above the  ocean.  It breeds and spends its summers off Newfoundland and northward to Baffin Island and beyond.  It is usually seen solitary or in small groups.  It feeds on fish which it catches under water.  

Thick-billed Murre
The wind storm that brought the murres to shore in NB brought them into the Northumberland Strait and the Bay of Fundy.  This would be well off course for them.  Some were seen along our east coast and some are still present off Grand Manan.  Some were even blown onto land or found injured and taken to the Atlantic Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre.  When an event like that happens, it is important to get the birds back to the ocean as soon as possible.  They are nearly incapable of walking on land and would die soon if not returned to the ocean.  They are unable to take flight from land so need human intervention to survive.

The Thick-billed Murre is a torpedo-shaped bird.  That is very evident when you see them flying.  They are 42 cm (18 in) long and weigh about 1 kg.  In winter plumage they are distinguished from the Common Murre, which is similar in size, by the thicker bill, the presence of more black on the head and neck and the clean white sides.  They do not have the pointed tail of the Razorbill.

Thick-billed Murre
The murres seen in the above photos were seen off Grand Manan.  We visited there on Feb. 20 and found one off Swallowtail Light and 4 at Seal Cove.  The birds at Seal Cove were resting and feeding around the salmon cages and seen by looking over the break wall at the wharf.  

I was privileged to experience a Thick-billed Murre storm-blown event while living in Norway in September 1997.  Hundreds of birds were blown inland.  We saw them in fields, on highways, and many in local bays.  I tried to help but unfortunately most were dead and there were too many to deal with.  I was able to examine one of them and found it a lot larger and heavier than expected.  I was struck by the beauty of the birds.  The sight of so many dead and stressed birds was difficult for me.  It seems that when they are blown inland, the survivors tend to hang around in bays for a considerable time before returning out to sea.  It must be because they are hungry, confused, physically injured, or perhaps just taking advantage of shelter while they can.

Below is a photo of the Thick-billed Murre in breeding plumage.  The white line on its bill differentiates it from the Common Murre which lacks the white line.  The Thick-billed Murre also retains its clean flanks and the Common Murre keeps its flank streaking in breeding plumage.

Thick-billed Murre [Internet Photo]

The Thick-billed Murre is a holarctic species.  As well as North America, it occurs off Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, Russia and Japan.  In Europe it is known as Brunnich's Guillemot (named after a Danish ornithologist) and in Norway it is known as 'Polarlomvi'.  These are all the same species, Uria lomvia.

Many thanks to Mark Morse for making us aware of the presence of these birds and for his excellent photo seen above.

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