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The storm swept a tiny, penguin-like bird to Vermont. A teenager took it in.

A small black and white bird rests on it's belly on a blanket inside a crate.
Emily Knaggs
/
Courtesy
After this dovekie was found in Westmore, Emily Knaggs with NEK Wildlife Rescue Rehabilitation took the bird in.

For a seabird swept up in a storm, exhausted from fighting against the wind and rain, a wet road can look a lot like a body of water, and a good place to rest.

That’s probably what happened Monday night in Westmore, after a deadly storm battered the northeast, with coastal winds gusting over 60 mph, and torrential rain that caused widespread flooding and power outages.

A squat bird that looks like a tiny penguin landed on a road near Lake Willoughby. A driver spotted it and stopped when it went beneath his truck.

“He was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I hit this bird.’ And then went out and saw the bird, and was totally baffled by the look of the bird and had no idea what it was,” said Emily Knaggs, a high school senior who runs a wildlife rehab center with her mother in Barton.

“It wasn't able to walk or anything, so he took it home,” she said.

Less than an hour later, Knaggs picked up the bird and identified it as a dovekie, also called a little auk. They’re black and white diving birds, in the same family as puffins, that weigh less than half a pound. They live on the ocean — nesting above the Arctic Circle in summer, then migrating south for the winter by swimming, typically as far down as the New England coast.

Knaggs named the bird she picked up Wonder.

“The whole time we were helping this bird, we were like, ‘I wonder where it came from. I wonder how it got here,'” she said.

A small black and white bird in a tub of water spreads one of its wings.
Emily Knaggs
/
Courtesy
Knaggs says when she started doing wildlife rehab work this summer, she got calls almost every day about injured animals in the Northeast Kingdom.

It turns out, it's not uncommon for ocean birds like dovekies to get blown off course during winter storms like the one this week.

“These storms are famous for birdwatchers all along the eastern seaboard,” said Kent McFarland, a conservation biologist with the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

“When we know a storm’s coming, birders get ready,” he said. “Everyone from Cape Cod inland will be watching for strange birds to show up.”

Seabirds get caught in heavy, sustained winds from the east. They’ll try to ride out a storm, but sometimes they can't. They’ll look for a body of water where they can land.

“Birders call these 'wrecks,' when lots of birds will wreck on shore and land,” McFarland said. “They’re called bird wrecks, just like shipwrecks.”

There have been at least three other dovekies recorded in Vermont since 1910, according to the database Vermont eBird. They all likely ended up in the state after being blown off course during a storm.

“When we know a storm’s coming, birders get ready. Everyone from Cape Cod inland will be watching for strange birds to show up.”
Kent McFarland, Vermont Center for Ecostudies

And dovekies are particularly prone to these wrecks because they're not very good fliers.

“They're great at diving underwater, and so that's the trade off,” said Kenn Kaufman, a naturalist who has written several field guides about North American birds. “They use their wings for swimming, basically for flying underwater.”

When these birds get within sight of land, they’ll realize they’re off course. But if a storm is strong enough, they don’t stand a chance of getting where they want to go. “They're not strong enough or fast enough fliers to actually make headway against the wind,” said Kaufman.

And if they land on solid ground, not on water, they’re basically stuck, like some other diving birds.

“On flat ground, they have very little chance of being able to take off on their own,” Kaufman added.

Dovekie-rescue-video-emily-knaggs-courtesy.mp4

That’s what happened to the dovekie that landed in Vermont — it couldn’t fly.

“I put him on the ground to see if he could walk, and he kind of wobbled around,” Knaggs recalled.

She took care of the bird at her home until early Wednesday morning, when two volunteers drove it to a wildlife rehab center on the coast of Maine, called the Center for Wildlife.

There, dozens of dovekies had been dropped off in the days after the storm, from around Maine and the New Hampshire coast. The bird from Vermont came from furthest away.

Two small black and white birds swimming in an indoor pool.
Bob Dale
/
Center for Wildlife
By Thursday afternoon, the Center for Wildlife in Maine had two dovekies left in their care.

Of the 36 birds in their care, most survived, and were released this week.

“For a lot of them, it was a very quick, 24-hour turnaround time,” said Bob Dale with the Center for Wildlife.

But not Wonder, the bird from Vermont. The bird died, likely from dehydration and lack of food.

“The little guy was probably just under too much,” Knaggs said by text message.

She knows that death comes with the work of doing of wildlife rehab.

Since getting a state license a few months ago, Knaggs says she's learned something new with every animal she's taken in.

"I definitely taught people a lot of things this week," she said. "Because nobody knew what a dovekie was."

Zoe McDonald contributed reporting.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message, or contact reporter Lexi Krupp:

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Lexi covers science and health stories for Vermont Public.