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Rare dovekie ocean birds in distress off East End

Dovekies swim at the Wildlife Rescue Center of

Dovekies swim at the Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons on Jan. 26, 2010. Dovekies, rare ocean birds that look like small penguins, are rarely spotted by humans. Photo Credit: The Southampton Press

If you've seen a dovekie, chances are something's wrong.

The rare ocean birds are a bit larger than a human fist and look like small penguins. They dive into the water at high speeds to hunt fish, their wings locking together to protect them from cold and moisture. They can go their entire lives miles from the Long Island coast without being spotted by a person.

>>>VIDEO: Dovekies treated at Wildlife rescue center

So when eight dovekies ended up on land in two days earlier this week, the staff at the Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons in Hampton Bays was alarmed.

By the time people brought them into the shelter, many of the dovekies were anemic and suffering from extreme cold. The ability of their wings to repel water had worn off. They needed IVs and injections of vitamins.

"They're very, very difficult birds to rehabilitate," said Virginia Frati, the center's executive director. "Usually, we're rarely able to save dovekies."

What's happening this year isn't immediately clear. Strong winds and storms can blow the tiny birds off the water.

Dovekies only come to land when they're in distress. In a normal year, the center sees one or two. They breed near the Arctic Circle and fly south for the winter. The high number of birds this year - three other dovekies were found earlier this month on the East End - is unprecedented, Frati said.

Monday's winds were strong, surpassing 45 mph, with a high surf. By that night, three birds had made it to the shelter.

The clinic's medical specialists put each bird in a small, dark box to calm its nerves. "These particular birds you want to handle as little as possible," said Ryan Ortiz, who was on duty when the birds arrived.

One died overnight, a result of being out of the ocean for too long. Another four arrived Tuesday morning, and one more came in that night.

Over the next few days, the clinic's staff tried to save as many as possible. Only two survived. The clinic released the two birds Wednesday morning. Frati said the other six will be studied to find out if they came inland for a reason besides the bad weather.

"They were basically the healthiest ones of the group," Ortiz said. "You feel bad that you lost as many as you did, but you feel good that you were at least able to help two."

 

Facts on dovekies

 

Part of the auk family of birds. Also known as a little auk.

Adults are black with white underparts. They resemble small penguins.

Average length of about 8 inches.

Breed on rocky coasts and islands around Arctic Circle. Migrate as far south as Long Island in spring.

SOURCES: allaboutbirds.org, Encyclopaedia Britannica

>>>VIDEO: Dovekies treated at Wildlife rescue center

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