Bird Watcher's General Store

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Where To See Razorbills

Dear Bird Folks,

We are on Cape Cod for the weekend and plan to do a little bird watching. Specifically, we would like to see some Razorbills. Any suggestions?

– A couple from Bangor, ME


Glad you asked, “A Couple,”

Before we begin, I need to explain this question to everyone else. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, a nice couple from Bangor came into my shop. They asked me if I knew where they might find some Razorbills. As it sometimes happens, I forgot to get their names. (I really should hire a personal secretary, but my budget – and my wife – won’t allow it.) The Mainers had come to the right place because earlier that same day a couple from Falmouth, Cindy and Lee (I remembered their names), told me about seeing Razorbills in Provincetown Harbor. I passed the info onto the Bangor couple and sent them on their way. After they left, I started thinking that I should drive up and see the Razorbills myself. Why should Cindlee (Cindy and Lee) and the Maineiacs have all the fun? But before I do that, I ought to tell the readers a bit about Razorbills. I’m sure there are a few folks who aren’t familiar with these odd birds and perhaps are thinking that Razorbills are a new grooming product from Gillette. They’re not.

Razorbills are black and white seabirds that, when standing on land, look rather penguin-ish. But unlike penguins, Razorbills can fly, and apart from the breeding season, they tend to remain at sea. As you might have guessed, this bird’s common name is related to the shape of its beak, which is thick and latterly pressed, sort of puffin-like. Try as I might, I don’t really see this beak looking like a razor. To me, it looks more like a wedge or putty knife, but I understand the problem. I don’t think anyone wanted to name a bird after a putty knife.

Razorbills typically breed on offshore islands. They form large colonies with other seabirds, such as kittiwakes, murres and those beloved puffins. But sadly, the Razorbills’ closest relatives no longer breed with them. In the 1800s, idiot humans hunted its cousin, the Great Auk, into extinction. Sigh! Now that I’ve depressed everyone, I’ll continue.

The bulk of the Razorbill population breeds around the British Isles and Iceland, with smaller colonies found on this side of the Atlantic. These sites include Greenland, the Canadian Maritimes, and off the coast of Maine. Razorbill pairs are basically identical looking, with the males only slightly larger than the females. Once coupled up, the two birds tend to remain mates for the rest of their lives. This makes total sense. If they all look the same, what is the point of shopping around? After the nesting season, the birds leave their breeding grounds and head out to sea for the winter. Most of the North American birds ride out the off-season in the Gulf of Maine, but some venture farther south. This is when we get to see them…if we are lucky. Razorbills love the open ocean, but sometimes storms and choppy seas (like we had over Thanksgiving) become too much for them. This is when they seek calmer water, which in this particular case, is Provincetown Harbor.

After the holiday weekend I got up early, hopped into my fancy new electric car and drove to Provincetown. I love Provincetown anytime of year, but late fall is my favorite time to visit. The salt water taffy crowd has long gone, but many of the shops and restaurants are still open. Plus, there is plenty of free parking. (Free parking is sweet, although not as sweet as salt water taffy. Nothing has that much sugar.) I parked, walked past the lobster pot “Christmas tree” and headed out onto MacMillan Pier. On the righthand side, where the whale watching boats are usually moored, there were lots of eiders and several loons. This was a good start, but so far no Razorbills. Hmm. I crossed over to the other side (through the usual flock of pigeons) to where the fishing boats are tied up…and there they were. Not one or two, but dozens of Razorbills. The Falmouth couple was right. I’ll never doubt the word of Cindlee again.

In addition to the high number, the other thing that impressed me about Razorbills was how much they hated me. The birds farther out in the harbor were cool, but anytime a bird close enough to photograph saw me, it immediately dove under water and never came up again, or so it seemed. Razorbills are fast, powerful swimmers, using their wings to “fly” underwater. They can dive as deep as sixty feet and remain below the surface for over a minute when searching for fish…or trying to avoid me.

Anytime I visit Provincetown, I always check the harbor. This time of year you are likely to see all sorts of seabirds taking a break from the Atlantic’s turbulent waters. This month alone folks have reported seeing grebes, loons, scoters, guillemots and lots of Razorbills. But on this day, the birding highlight came from the center of town. I was just getting back into my car when I heard a loud “cr-r-ruck.” This was a weird sound, even by Provincetown standards. It was a pair of ravens perched on the top of the Town Hall’s clocktower. Ravens are fairly common in places like Maine, but they are rare birds on Cape Cod, and I was surprised to see them in the center of town. I’m not really sure why the ravens were there, but my guess is they were waiting for the salt water taffy shop to open…and so was I.