Long-billed Murrelet Brachyramphus perdix Ithaca, Tompkins Co., NY, 17 December 2001.
All pictures were taken by my son Jay and me and are © Kevin J. McGowan. Most were taken with an Olympus D-450 digital camera through my Swarovski HD-80 spotting scope. The video captures were taken with a Sony TRV830 video camera. (Jay did most of the still photography while I got video.)
On the dark, rainy morning of 17 December 2001, Steve and Taylor Kelling were looking at waterfowl on Cayuga Lake from Stewart Park, Ithaca. Steve spotted a small black and white bird far off that was diving in an odd way: It stuck it wings up in the air when it dived. He guessed it was a murrelet or other small alcid, and alerted the local birding community. It was not refound until noon, and was determined to be a Long-billed Murrelet. The bird was only seen through the 20th of December.
Jay and I tried to find it in the morning of the 17th without success, but were able to find it later in the day. We watched it from very far away, but were rewarded for our patience by it coming all the way across the lake and fishing very close to us. The day, however, was not conducive to photography, and all our best efforts resulted in poorer pictures than we would have hoped. Still, all the basic fieldmarks are there.
It was an alcid by virtue of its shape, size, coloring, and acrobatic diving. It was small, smaller than a Hooded Merganser, so was not a murre or razorbill. The broad white crescent over the wings effectively eliminated all alcids except the 3 Brachyramphus murrelets (Kittlitz's, Marbled, Long-billed), Least Auklet, and the guillemots. The guillemots could be eliminated by overall color, size and shape (especially of the head, neck and bill). Least Auklet would be unprecedented inland, and the pointed bill shape and white behind the flanks eliminated it. Kittlitz's Murrelet, also unknown inland, was eliminated by the dark face and longer bill.
Long-billed Murrelet was once considered a Siberian subspecies of the Marbled Murrelet (B. marmoratus), and was elevated to a full species by the American Ornithologists' Union only in 1997. Surprisingly, all inland and eastern records of "Marbled Murrelet" turn out to be not the North American marmoratus, but instead the Siberian perdix. About 50 records exist for North America; this is the 2nd for New York.
Very similar in appearance and habits, the two species can be distinguished by several characters. Most apparent is that the Long-billed has a dark nape to the neck, making a continuous line from the bill through the eye, and down the neck. Marbled, on the otherhand, has a prominent white collar, making a large white patch behind the eye. Clearly the Ithaca bird has the former.
Also noticeable is that the bill, although far from large, is rather prominent and stout, more like Long-billed than Marbled. Also present on this bird, albeit difficult to see from any distance, and only apparent in a few of our photographs, are white eye-arcs above and below the eyes. Sibley (2000) calls them "prominent" but I would call them anything but! Subtle, but visible in several of the photos are white ovals on the back of the nape; Marbled apparently do not have these.
The white eye lining can be seen (just!) on this photo, along with the obvious dark nape and sides of the neck.
Here are some different angles of the bird. (Notice that it never stopped raining the whole time we were photographing!)
It spent most of its time above water hunched down with its wings slightly spread. When it raised its head it presented quite a different appearance. The faint white ovals on the back of the head are just visible here.
The bill in these unedited photos looks large enough for it to be a murre, not a murrelet!
The bird was an energetic diver and swam quite far between brief appearances on the surface. For mpeg clips of it diving, go here.
Here is a sequence taken from the Sony Digital-8 video of it diving. The wings pointed to the sky at the top of its dive were very apparent even from a great distance. (To see the mpeg of this sequence, go here.)
Here is another dive from another angle. It's a bit more grainy because I was into the digital zoom above the 18x optical. To see the mpeg of this dive, go here.
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