A rare Arctic seabird was spotted in Acton last month, likely blown in by a storm

"I have not seen anything like this ever, around these parts."

A thick-billed murre was spotted at a home in Acton on Jan. 17. Austin Sharpe

When Austin Sharpe went out to clean snow off his car Jan. 17, he didn’t expect to find a rare arctic seabird near his home in Acton. But, as Austin Sharpe told The Boston Globe, his wife spotted a strange bird on the other side of his car. 

“There was this bird that was standing completely upright on two feet, just like a profile of a penguin,” Austin Sharpe told NBC10.

The bird was clearly not a bird you see often around Massachusetts — it turned out to be a thick-billed murre. 

Thick-billed murres, which have an upright penguin-like posture, a thick, pointed bill, and long narrow wings, are usually found off the eastern side of Newfoundland and Labrador, according to Wayne Petersen, the director of Important Bird Areas at Mass Audubon


“[Thick-billed murres are] normally out at sea and they’re normally in large numbers farther north than southern New England,” Petersen said. “They are what we call high arctic breeding birds — they breed on very high sea cliffs that are sort of stacked and layered.”

The bird was likely displaced by Winter Storm Izzy with gusts up to 70 miles per hour, which Petersen said can displace birds.

“It appeared like it was injured, it wasn’t moving super well, it was nestled into the snow,” Abby Sharpe told NBC10. “I have not seen anything like this ever, around these parts.”

Thick-billed murres are part of the alcid family, which has a handful of species in the northwest atlantic. The most recognizable species in the alcid family are puffins. 

Really, they are a pretty common type of bird, according to Petersen. But if you aren’t a bird enthusiast, you may not even know how to pronounce it, said Petersen. (By the way, murre is pronounced like myrrh, as in “gold, frankincense and myrrh.”)

“They’re not even really closely related to penguins, but they are the analog of penguins in the northern hemisphere,” Petersen said. 


Murres and penguins look sort of similar to the untrained eye, according to Petersen, but are, in reality, very different. The most notable difference is that murres can fly, unlike penguins. 

According to NBC10, the Sharpes got in touch with the Tufts Wildlife Clinic, which started treating the murre Jan. 17.

“It was severely emaciated but did not have any injuries. Veterinarians provided fluids and hand fed the murre until it became strong enough to start eating on its own,” said Dr. Maureen Murray, the director of the Tufts Wildlife Clinic, in a statement.

Murray also said the murre was put in a pool to test its swimming abilities and to see if its feathers were waterproof. She said after the seabird was back in the water, it swam well, ate “ravenously,” and started gaining weight quickly. 

Petersen said he wasn’t really surprised to hear reports of the murre found in Acton. It’s not normal for them to be in Massachusetts or that far inland, but it does happen. Petersen said a number of factors, including pack ice formation and food availability, can push birds closer to New England, and then a storm can blow them totally off course. 


“I’ve been in this business for a long time — I’ve been interested in birds since I was a kid in junior high school and accordingly, this kind of thing isn’t as extraordinary as it might seem,” Petersen said.

What he said was notable about this instance is that the Sharpes realized it didn’t belong. 

“It shouldn’t have been in the backyard in Acton, but the bottom line is, it dodged the bullet in that the people that found it realized it was uncommon or unusual and took it to Tufts and they got it back on its feet,” Petersen said.

After being treated at Tufts, the murre was transported to the New England Wildlife Centers, who released the bird Feb. 2.

Though in this case the New England Wildlife Centers were mainly a method of release for the bird, Zak Mertz, the executive director of the Cape Cod branch, said they see seabirds all the time. The center provides everything from supportive care, to baths to help restore the waterproof nature of birds’ feathers, to intensive surgeries.

He said the center will see one or two birds a day, until a storm, or as he calls them “bird makers,” rolls in. After a big nor’easter or other storm, it’s not unheard of for the center to see 50 birds in a day. 

“[The birds] are definitely commuters. [For] most of them this is like their summertime vacation spot,” Mertz said. “They leave way up north to get out of probably even worse conditions than we have.”


A spokesperson for New England Wildlife Centers later clarified that migrating here is a normal process for the birds and they may commute locally between spots in New England depending on resource availability and the weather.

The most common birds treated at the center change year by year largely due to timing of storms, but Mertz said some of the most common ones this year have been dovekies, razorbills, loons and northern gannets — all birds you don’t normally see on land in this part of the world. 

“Just like any other smart animal including humans, they try to get out of the storm or seek safe harbor,” Mertz said. 

The biggest two reasons birds end up at wildlife rescues after storms are getting pushed up on land by the rough surf and crash landings, according to Mertz. 

Storms with high winds can create big waves and rough surf, and some birds get pushed in when they can’t fight the current. 

“They get just absolutely creamed in the rough surf, and they end up on land and most of these guys … they’re just not terribly good at walking on land,” Mertz said. “They’re really adept at swimming and diving. But the trade off is they don’t run around or walk around so well.”

For birds that were attempting to fly through the storm, places like parking lots, blacktop, and frozen ponds look a lot like water, and can confuse birds.


“From overhead there’s a big dark surface and sometimes these birds are like, ‘OK, perfect, I’m gonna land in this spot,’” Mertz said. “Instead of hitting the stop water, they hit pavement or someone’s yard or driveway.”

If you notice a bird in your yard or on a walk on the beach, Mertz recommends you call a nearby rehabilitation center.

“Usually what happens is I will request a picture … it’ll give us an idea of the type of bird, what it may be doing there, all that kind of stuff,” Mertz said. “Then we usually will talk them through capturing it using a towel and putting it in a feather safe container … If it’s late at night, they’re going to keep it overnight in their house and then we’ll take it from them first thing in the morning.”

Mertz cautioned people against trying to move or feed the birds before consulting a licensed professional, saying though everyone who brings in birds has good intentions, sometimes their attempt at help can actually cause more harm. 

“Whether we’re humans or we’re animals, storms are a part of life, but they can be hard on all species,” Mertz said. “After a big storm, especially with heavy winds, we when it’s safe to do so we recommend that folks check their yard and if you live near the beach and you want to be good Samaritan, it never hurts to walk the beach and just, you know, keep an eye out for birds that might be in trouble.”


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