As Jim Lawrence pulled into his driveway amid Tuesday’s fierce rains, he spotted a fluffy black-and-white ball of feathers hopping along his driveway.
The bird jumped inside the garage of Lawrence’s home near Chincoteague, Virginia, to escape the storm. Lawrence, a former Baltimore County resident, snapped photos and reached out to animal rescue experts.
It was a dovekie, a bird that is usually found in frigid Arctic waters, blown onto land by heavy winds. A close relative of puffins, the birds have black and white feathers and spend most of their lives bobbing on icy seas and eating small crustaceans. That is, unless a storm sweeps them up.
“It was definitely a unique visitor,” said Lawrence, who works in home remodeling. “It was walking around like a puffin does.”
Like the tornado that whirled Dorothy to Oz, Tuesday’s storm swept several of the birds from their ocean home to coastal neighborhoods. In Princess Anne in Somerset County, waterman Sam Elias brought home one he found at his crab shanty on the Manokin River, said his wife, Ashley Elias.
“He came home and said, ‘I don’t know what this thing is, but it looks like a penguin,’” said Ashley Elias, who used Google’s image search to identify it. The couple, who have three children 4 and under, are hoping to find a good Samaritan to transport the bird to a wildlife rehabilitation center a few hours away.
The Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research in Newark, Delaware, was expecting Wednesday afternoon to receive dovekies found in Ocean Pines and Lewes, Delaware, according to clinic programs director Andrea Howey-Newcomb.
The rescue was already caring for a dovekie found on Assateague Island on Jan. 7, Howey-Newcomb said. Three dovekies were rescued off the coast of South Carolina on Sunday, and another was found in Vermont late last month.
Dovekies are pelagic, meaning they spend most of their lives on the sea, but they are so light and buoyant that a heavy wind can sweep them up, said Kathy Woods, director of the Phoenix Wildlife Center in Baltimore County. While the rehabilitation center did not receive any dovekies, it did put up an educational post about the bird — featuring a photo of the dovekie that Lawrence found— which was shared more than a thousand times.
The birds are not considered endangered, although they are threatened by hunting, oil drilling and the accumulation of pollutants, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Although the birds spend most of their lives at sea, they gather on rocky Arctic cliffs to breed.
The birds mate for life and engage in a series of “frankly adorable courtship behaviors,” including bowing their heads and rubbing their black bills, according to the ornithology site. Their high trills sound as if a seagull squawked after inhaling a helium balloon.
As for the bird that found its way to the Virginia coast, Lawrence called a bird rehabilitation expert, who advised him to keep it warm and safe until it could be transported. Lawrence drilled holes in a plastic bin, lined it with a towel and put the dovekie inside, he said. The bird was about the size of a softball and fit into his palm, Lawrence said.
Then Lawrence put the bin in a spare room, away from the curious snuffling noses of his Labrador and Chesapeake retrievers.
Officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service picked up the bird Wednesday morning to take it to an animal rehabilitation facility, Lawrence said.
Like other seabirds, dovekies are difficult to rehabilitate, said Howey-Newcomb. Since they evolved to build nests on rocky cliffs, they cannot take flight from flat land. They are also prone to respiratory fungal infections.
They need special housing to maintain their feathers, which serve as a natural wetsuit. If their feathers become disrupted, the birds are unable to maintain their temperature or dive. Fortunately, Tri-State Bird Rescue specializes in caring for seabirds, Howey-Newcomb said.
Not counting the latest batch, the rescue has received seven dovekies since 2020, Howey-Newcomb said. While it’s rare for many birds to be swept inland, vast numbers of the birds washed up along the Eastern Seaboard in the winter of 1932-33, with some even appearing in the streets of New York City, according to the Cornell ornithology lab.
Lawrence said he was hopeful that the bird he rescued, which he named Captain Jack Sparrow after the “Pirates of the Caribbean” character, would make a full recovery.
“It was very active,” he said. “It seemed none the worse for wear.”