Text and photos by Peter Vankevich
Ocracoke gets unusual visitors throughout the year and some of them have wings.
The Observer was alerted of one from the subarctic when Muskie Cates of Chapel Hill and islander Nathan Modlin reported that a Razorbill showed up in Silver Lake harbor in early March and stayed for several days floating and submerging to forage.
This seabird is the closest living relative to the Great Auk, which went extinct in the mid-19th century.
A denizen of the Northern Atlantic Ocean, in Eastern North America, Razorbills nest as far south as Maine.
On this continent, their winter range is usually as far south as New Jersey, though some years they do make it to the waters off North Carolina and even points further south from December into March.
When present, they are usually seen offshore by boat, or at best, well beyond the breakers off the beaches. So it was both unusual and a delight to see one in the harbor.
Its presence was not totally surprising since this year brought an unusually high number of Razorbills close in to shore. On the morning of Feb 26, Ricky Davis and Derb Carter counted almost 8,000 of them in almost four hours flying north from Jennette’s Pier at Nags Head.
Razorbills have all-black heads and backs and white under plumage similar to that of penguins, giving them a tuxedo-like appearance.
Razorbills are colonial seabirds and their nesting sites on islands, rocky shores and cliffs vary from a few pairs to tens of thousands.
They are part of the family Alcidae in the order Charadriiformes which include murres, guillemots, auklets, puffins and murrelets, all northern hemisphere birds.
Razorbills are monomorphic, that is, both sexes look the same. When viewed close up, Razorbills are easily separated from other alcids by their thick, rectangular bills which, during breeding period, have prominent white lines. At sea, from a distance, they can be hard to distinguish from Common and Thick Billed Murres. Based on its plumage and bill color, the Ocracoke bird is probably a first or second year bird.
They mate for life and both parents have two brood patches and share in the incubation of only one egg per season, as well as feeding the young. If the egg disappears, they will lay another. They don’t start breeding until four or five years of age. Incubation averages 35 days, and the male parent accompanies the chick to sea after about 18 to 20 days at the nest site.
They spend most of their lives floating on the seas, and, when foraging underwater, will use their wings to propel them when pursuing fish. They are, however, strong and rapid flyers.
Up until 1918, when the Migratory Bird Treaty Act began protecting them, Razorbill populations were decimated from the harvesting of eggs and the hunting of adults for meat and feathers. They were still harvested around Newfoundland until 1949 when it joined Canada, which observes the treaty.
Worldwide, there are approximately 700,000 breeding pairs with about 65 per cent nesting in Iceland. In Maine, they have five known nesting sites and have up 1,000 breeding pairs.
Because Razorbill hunting still takes place in Greenland and Iceland, along with mortalities from fishing nets, oil spills and other causes such as predation of eggs and chicks by Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, their numbers are declining. Occasionally dead razorbills will wash up onto the beach of Ocracoke.
Though the Razorbill’s average lifespan is roughly 13 years, a banded bird in the UK in 1967 was known to be 41 years old.
The best way to see them in North Carolina is by taking a sea birding winter pelagic (on-the-sea) trip run by Brian Patterson out of Hatteras Island. Patterson is a world-renowned expert on Eastern Atlantic seabirds.