The Nerf football-sized birds were scattered around Cape Cod.
Someone had located one of the black-and-white critters wandering aimlessly in the parking lot of a Shaws grocery store, in Orleans. A second Dovekie — a waterborne bird and relative of the Puffin — was found nearby, at the Barley Neck Inn. Others were stranded in Brewster, and parts of Eastham.
They were far from home. Dovekies are arctic birds typically found miles offshore, not anywhere near Cape Cod or any big land mass. They had been blown in by powerful winds and large waves produced by Tuesday’s Nor-easter, which battered much of the state coastline.
With the help of volunteers and staff from Wild Care, Inc., a non-profit in Eastham that takes in sick and injured wildlife for rehabilitation, many of the Dovekies found along the beaches and marshes and those discovered in backyards or parking lots, were returned to their ocean habitat unharmed Thursday.
“It felt like a Dovekies factory in here this morning,” said Stephanie Ellis, Wild Care’s executive director.
Ellis said the group responds every winter to calls about “a couple” stranded Dovekies after a powerful storm. But for some reason, this week’s weather event led to an unprecedented numberof rescues of the small birds.
“This storm really did a number on them,” Ellis said. “We had a steady stream of calls coming in. People were out and walking on the beaches, and finding the birds.”
If left to fend for themselves, they would perish on the beaches, and get gobbled up by gulls and other animals.
“The ones in parking lots would die and dehydrate,” Ellis said.
In total, the organization took in nearly two dozen Dovekies this week. Fourteen of the birds were returned to the ocean by boat on Thursday, and a few others died after battling against the elements. Several are still in Ellis’s care, but she hopes to send them on their way by Friday.
While in the possession of Wild Care, the tiny Dovekies enjoyed a few amenities that they don’t find while roaming the Atlantic.
To get the birds back on their feet, Ellis and her staff fed the Dovekies a “nutritional slurry” — it’s like a milkshake for feathered creatures — made from a blend of dried plankton, and vital vitamins and minerals. They were fed through tubes.
The birds, which are not endangered but are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, were also placed in cold water therapy pools, to ensure they were “waterproof” before being returned to the sea.
Ellis said when birds go through a harrowing ordeal, and don’t feel well as a result, they don’t take care of themselves properly.
“When people don’t feel well, they don’t comb their hair or bathe, and birds are the same way,” she said. “If they aren’t feeling well, they don’t preen their feathers and realign their feathers. They know nothing other than water, so getting them in it is the most natural thing we can do. Placing them in the pools encourages them to preen.”
She said Dovekies have an oil gland “on their rump,” which secretes necessary lipids and fatty acids. It’s very waxy, she said, so when the birds do begin to preen, they end up rubbing the secretion onto their feathers — and that’s what waterproofs them and prepares them for the oceans.
With the help of Dorothy and Alan Cohen, owners of Ryder’s Cove Boatyard, in Chatham, Wild Care officials loaded up the birds Thursday and took them to a break in Nauset Beach referred to as “The Notch,” which goes directly out to the Atlantic, Ellis said.
Ideally, the group would have transported the Dovekies 10 miles out to sea to their offshore habitat — they can fly, but not well; they are built for being in the water. But the westerly winds were strong enough that Ellis was sure the birds would make it home safely.
“It’s important for us to get them out on a boat and release them offshore whenever possible,” Ellis said. “Otherwise, they don’t stand a very great chance.”