November 2006 was an exceptional month for Western New York birders interested in rarities, with Eurasian wigeon, harlequin duck, parasitic jaeger, California gull, black-legged kittiwake, razorbill and summer tanager all recorded locally.
The most exciting of those birds is the razorbill, to my best memory the only species of these auk-like sea birds reported here in many years. Paul Benham tells me that he was one of those who saw the razorbill found in the same area in January 1985, and two Canadian birders observed one there several years earlier.
According to Beardslee and Mitchell's 1965 "Birds of the Niagara Frontier Region," at the time that book was written there was also a mounted specimen in the School Museum in Ystad, Sweden, which was collected in the Niagara region by Sjogren on Nov. 16, 1906. This is Beardslee and Mitchell's only regional record, but Arthur Cleveland Bent's 1919 "Life Histories of North American Diving Birds" includes reports of this species from Toronto and Hamilton, Ont.
I mention all those records to suggest that the razorbill could be called a century bird, appearing in our region only a few times every hundred years. It is definitely not an expected visitor.
This individual bird was first reported on a Buffalo Ornithological Society field trip on Nov. 19 from Viewing Area 5 of Fort Niagara, and it was observed from both Fort Niagara and Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., until early January. As I write, birders continue to watch for it.
Well over a hundred birdwatchers traveled to our region to obtain brief -- or, rarely, extended -- views of the razorbill fishing the Niagara River opening into Lake Ontario. They saw the bird diving to remain out of view for remarkably long periods, and occasionally buzzing upriver about a hundred yards to drift down again. When I was there recently, birders from Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Chicago were watching for it through binoculars and telescopes.
Meanwhile, boats carrying anglers and, until early January, hunters passed near the razorbill apparently oblivious to it. Its defense against close approach is to dive, not to fly, and this may have saved it from being mistaken for a small duck and shot. In any case, I salute the hunters who did not kill this rare bird.
Unfortunately, for the many stateside observers there is a toll involved for we are no longer allowed to observe from the Coast Guard Station and a $10 single visit, $30 annual fee is charged to enter the fort through the museum.
If you saw a razorbill on land, your first thought might well be that it was a penguin because it sits upright in that same way. Don't wait for that, however; the only time this species ventures ashore is to breed on the far northern Atlantic coast in June or July. There a female lays its solitary egg usually high on a cliff over the ocean.
According to Bent, the young "remain on the cliffs where they were hatched and are fed by their parents until they are about half grown but still unable to fly. The old birds then persuade, induce or even force them to fly or throw themselves down to the sea, an operation which requires considerable urging on the part of the parents and often results fatally for the young birds, in case they happen to fall on the rocks." The adults then teach their successful young to swim and dive.
If you look for this rare visitor, watch for a constantly diving crow-sized bird. Noreen O'Brien of MaineCoastNOW.com describes it as riding on "the water's surface like a cork." It appears at first to be solid black but its throat and breast are white. What distinguishes it from any other sea birds is its thick black bill. Adult razorbills have a thin white streak on the bill that looks as though a white rubber band were circling it. This bird does not show that marking, suggesting that it is immature.
Perhaps an Atlantic storm drove this razorbill west through the Gulf of St. Lawrence and upriver to our region. Whatever brought it here, it appears to have found plenty of fish in the river mouth. It is probably too much to hope that it will return next year and bring some friends.