An influx of winter visitors is nothing new in Florida, but this year brings a true snowbird that rarely shows up south of Virginia, much less in the Sunshine State.
Flocking to coastal fishing holes from Jacksonville to the Keys to Pensacola is a black-and-white member of the auk family that looks like a flying penguin and hails from such frigid climes as Iceland, Greenland and Canada: the razorbill.
It's not a total first; the seabird has been seen here and there in Florida about a dozen or so times in the past century. But never have so many — ornithologists say maybe thousands — shown up in a single winter and apparently flown clear around the southern tip of Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico, as has been documented since mid December.
"This is truly a unique event for Florida," said Bill Pranty, a longtime field ornithologist based in Pasco County and author of two books on Florida birds. He said he and a friend saw a flock of razorbills in flight at Green Key Beach in New Port Richey.
"Now we've got thousands, if not tens of thousands, in the state."
The unexpected guests have provided a thrill for avian fans, who are flocking to sites such as Anna Maria Island to see razorbills dive, swim and forage in subtropical waters off the fishing piers.
"It's crazy," said Michael Brothers, manager of the Marine Science Center at Ponce Inlet near Daytona Beach, who is participating in a Florida Museum of Natural History effort to document the unusual migration. "These birds are not supposed to be in the Gulf of Mexico."
On Sunday, at least a dozen of the stubby-winged birds with tuxedo markings were sharing the water with pelicans, gulls and egrets between the Anna Maria City Pier and the nearby Rod & Reel Pier. Unlike typical Florida coastal birds, however, razorbills virtually never venture onto land except during breeding season, which occurs on rocky cliffs in the North Atlantic, experts said.
Thomas Farrell, a Tampa Audubon Society member, drove to Anna Maria last week to see the birds at the city pier. He said he watched them dive and heard them call to one another.
"It's like a deep, guttural croak," he said. "It sounds like a duck with a real bad cold."
The razorbills' arrival en masse has given rise to theories on Internet email lists and message boards about why they are here and worries for their safe return north.
Already, about two dozen young razorbills have been reported dead, washed up at Honeymoon Island State Park, Anna Maria, Naples, the Fort Lauderdale area and parts of Volusia County.
Dan Wolf, avian veterinarian with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Gainesville, received eight dead birds last week from Fort Lauderdale and was expecting more from the Naples area around Christmas Day. He performed a necropsy, similar to an autopsy for humans, on two young females and determined that their stomachs were empty or nearly so, they were emaciated and had lost muscle.
However, inexperienced juveniles frequently don't survive their first migration, Wolf said.
So far, he said last Saturday, he has seen nothing alarming in the fatality rates, and reports and videos indicate most razorbills vacationing here appear to be finding food.
He said people who find dead birds should note the location and report it to FWC at myfwc.com/bird to help wildlife scientists keep tabs on the situation.
Brothers said his Ponce Inlet facility has been receiving ailing young birds from various coastal areas in Volusia County, the first found Dec. 7 in New Smyrna Beach.
"We're up to six now," he said. "They were weak and emaciated. They all have died very quickly, usually in a day or so."
The birds normally spend their winters off the coast of New Jersey, which was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy in late October. Chatter across the Internet suggests the storm somehow disrupted the razorbills' normal migration pattern or perhaps depleted the food supply and forced the birds to fly 1,000 or more extra miles in search of sustenance.
Brothers said another theory is that a rise in sea temperatures may have depleted the smorgasbord of fish and crustaceans favored by razorbills. Still others point to a bumper crop of razorbill chicks produced this year that may have led to more competition for food.
"I don't think there's enough data in for us to understand this," Brothers said.
Pranty said there is realistic concern about whether the razorbills wintering on Florida's west coast will summon enough strength and know-how to make their way back home when the times comes, usually around February.
"There will probably be a significant mortality rate," he said.
Some birders have suggested rounding up the creatures and shipping them back to more normal feeding grounds, but Wolf said that's not practical.
"There's no good way to collect birds like this and not harm them in the process," the veterinarian said. "We have to let nature take its course and see what happens."
All of the scientists interviewed said a significant die-off, though sad, would not seriously deplete the world razorbill population, which is not considered at risk for extinction.
"Enjoy them while they're here," Wolf advised. "You might not ever see this again."
Susan Marschalk Green can be reached at [email protected]