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KODIAK: Kittlitz’s Murrelet—Alaska’s Secretive Superbird
Alaska Region, August 29, 2008
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Field research team included volunteers Erin Burkett and Amy Westmark and James Lawonn, Wildlife Technician. Bill Pyle/USFWS
Field research team included volunteers Erin Burkett and Amy Westmark and James Lawonn, Wildlife Technician. Bill Pyle/USFWS - Photo Credit: n/a
Searching prospective habitat for Kittlitz's murrelet nests. Bill Pyle/USFWS
Searching prospective habitat for Kittlitz's murrelet nests. Bill Pyle/USFWS - Photo Credit: n/a
A Kittlitz’s murrelet nest found in June 2008 on Kodiak Refuge. James Lawonn/USFWS
A Kittlitz’s murrelet nest found in June 2008 on Kodiak Refuge. James Lawonn/USFWS - Photo Credit: n/a

Arcticle by James Lawonn, Refuge Wildlife Technician

What kind of bird can fly faster than a major league fastball, is so cryptically colored that it is virtually invisible on its nesting grounds (which typically has less vegetation than an average parking lot), dives to ocean depths of over 100 feet to catch prey, shuttles fish over 35 miles from open ocean feeding areas to their waiting chicks, and does all of this in nearly total darkness? It’s Alaska’s superbird, the Kittlitz’s murrelet. You say you've never heard of it? You’re not alone—perhaps less is known about this species than any other bird in North America.

The Kittlitz’s murrelet, abbreviated KIMU by biologists, is the rarest seabird found in the North Pacific. Most of the world’s population is thought to live and breed in Alaska. Though little is known about the species, what attributes are known make it more akin to a superhero than your average seabird. While the KIMU might not fly faster than a speeding bullet, it does fly faster than most major league fastballs, with top speeds approaching 100 miles per hour, making it one of the fastest birds on earth. The KIMU has ascetic tastes in nesting habitat, preferring the moonscape-like tumble of alpine steep scree and talus slopes for its nests, frequently in the vicinity of glaciers. In contrast to most seabirds’ more flamboyant attire, KIMU’s drab coloration renders it nearly invisible while incubating its single egg on the open ground. To round out the bird’s superhero-like resume, it must fly out to sea several times per day during the breeding season—in some cases more than 35 miles—to catch and return with small fish to nourish its chick. Incredibly, most of these flights are made at night and in the early morning hours in near darkness. Though one might think such an amazing “superbird" would have no problem flourishing, the KIMU has been undergoing an alarming decline over the last 35 years—from an estimate of over 100,000 birds in 1973 to a population today of 10,000 to 15,000.

Discovery of a single nest on Kodiak Refuge and concerns over declining numbers of the Kittlitz’s murrelet prompted a cooperative study involving the Refuge, Anchorage Fish and Wildlife Field Office, and Alaska Science Center/USGS to gather baseline data about the species’ nesting ecology and habitat use on the Refuge. Owing to its cryptic coloration and its habit of flying only under low light conditions, the species is extremely difficult to observe on its breeding grounds, so its breeding status on the Refuge was largely unknown. This summer a crew of three biologists made an expedition to the study site in the southwest portion of Kodiak Island. During 70 days of grueling field work from June to August, including a total of over 400 miles of mountain hiking and monitoring calling birds at 3 a.m., the researchers acquired an abundance of data. Four active KIMU nests were found, representing nearly 10% of the total nests previously discovered. Use of three separate areas of the Refuge was confirmed, with nesting activity verified at two and suspected at the third. Behaviors rarely or never seen before for this species were meticulously recorded, and DNA samples—in the form of feathers and eggshell fragments— also were collected. 

Researchers hope that the data gathered from this five-year study will not only help identify nesting habitat and guide management for this bird on Kodiak Island but also that sharing this knowledge will help solve the puzzle of this birds' decline across Alaska. Only through better understanding can we ensure that this real-life superbird will always have a place in the skies over Alaska.


Contact Info: Bill Pyle, 907-487-2600-228, Bill_Pyle@fws.gov



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