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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

KODIAK: Refuge has Another Successful Year Studying Kittlitz’s Murrelets!

Region 7, November 19, 2012
Kittlitz’s murrelet chick in a nest on Kodiak Refuge.
Kittlitz’s murrelet chick in a nest on Kodiak Refuge. - Photo Credit: n/a
Sonia Kumar, Heather Mackay, and Bob Taylor measuring a Kittlitz’s murrelet chick at the nest site.
Sonia Kumar, Heather Mackay, and Bob Taylor measuring a Kittlitz’s murrelet chick at the nest site. - Photo Credit: n/a

For the fifth consecutive year Kodiak Refuge had a banner field season studying a rare and little known seabird in the remote, rugged mountains on the southwestern end of Kodiak Island. The crew consisted of a biological technician and three volunteers who were all new to Alaska. They not only survived a summer spent living out of tents in the wilds of Alaska, they also had tremendous success finding Kittlitz’s murrelet nests and collecting valuable data. This information will be important as the Service determines if this species will be listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

 

The crew started the field season with a bang. On their very first day of nest searching they found three nests – an unprecedented number for this rare species. Unlike other seabirds that nest colonially on cliffs and offshore islands and rocks, Kittlitz’s murrelets nest in isolated pairs on rocky mountain slopes. The birds are a mottled grey and brown and blend perfectly with the rocky background. They don’t really build a nest, but rather lay their single egg in a slight depression in the rocks called a nest scrape. Because they blend so well with their nesting environment, and typically only come and go from the nest when it’s dark or very foggy, the only way to find a nest is to flush an adult who is incubating the egg. When a nest is located the crew quickly works to measure the egg, take photographs of the nest scrape and egg, record the location on a GPS, and place a small motion-sensitive camera that has been painted to look like a rock next to the nest. The camera records everything that happens at the nest and gives us valuable information on predators (thus far all red fox), and how often and what types of fish are being fed to the chicks. Usually work at the nest is done in about 10 minutes and the adult will quickly return and resume incubating the egg. After the chick has hatched, the crew returns three times to measure and weigh the chicks to get growth rate information. This season the crew monitored 21 nests at four study sites, just short of tying last seasons’ all-time record high of 22 nests! Over the five years of the study a total of 74 nests have been monitored.

Along with the new crew there was something else new this year – nest success was much higher than it has been in the past. Prior to this season, only nine out of 53 nests had successfully fledged a chick for a nest success of 17%. This year nine out of 20 nests fledged for a nest success of 45%. The 21st nest was still active when the crew left the field for the last time at the end of August. The chick in the nest was about 22 days old and nearly ready to fledge so chances are this chick made it to the sea as well. While we don’t yet understand all the factors important to nest survival, part of the reason the birds did so well this year could be that fewer eggs and chicks were eaten by red fox than in previous seasons. This could mean that there were fewer fox or more of the foxes other prey, like ptarmigan or tundra voles. Both this season and last, several chicks died mysteriously. The deaths occurred under favorable weather conditions and camera images indicated the chicks were fed regularly and looked healthy. The chicks are being examined by pathologists with the National Wildlife Health Center in hopes of finding the reason for their mysterious deaths. Possibilities include parasites and saxitoxin, one of the toxins responsible for paralytic shellfish poisoning. Thanks to funds recently granted from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, this study will continue to contribute new and valuable information on this little-known and very challenging bird to study for the next two years.

The Refuge sincerely thanks biological technician Heather Mackey, and volunteers Marie McCann, Bob Taylor, and Sonia Kumar for all their hard work in making every aspect of this years’ Kittlitz’s murrelet nesting ecology project a success.

Contact Info: Robin Corcoran, 907-487-0229, robin_corcoran@fws.gov