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ALASKA MARITIME:Murrelet Mysteries:Kittlitz’sNests found inAleutians
Alaska Region, September 1, 2008
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Kittlitz’s murrelets are one of the most secretive and poorly understood of all seabirds.  Photographer:  Robb Kaler 2005
Kittlitz’s murrelets are one of the most secretive and poorly understood of all seabirds. Photographer: Robb Kaler 2005 - Photo Credit: n/a
Only one chick survived out of 17 nests studied on Agattu Island in 2008. Photographer:  Robb Kaler, 2006
Only one chick survived out of 17 nests studied on Agattu Island in 2008. Photographer: Robb Kaler, 2006 - Photo Credit: n/a

 

Dense fog rolled over rugged, uninhabited and storm-swept Agattu Island setting the perfect tone for a mystery story.   Whirling wings startled Robb Kaler, a graduate student at Kansas State University, as a small brown bird vanished into the fog offering only a tantalizing glimpse of the secretive Kittlitz’s murrelet.   It was 2005 and the nest Kaler found hidden on the scree slope was one of only 23 known in the world at that time and only the second nest found in the 1000-mile Aleutian archipelago. When Kaler left his tent that morning to track rock ptarmigan for a restoration program on Alaska Maritime Refuge, he didn’t expect to stumble upon the nest of one of the least known seabirds in North America.  The center of abundance for this rare species was thought to be far to the east and the prevailing wisdom was that Kittlitz’s murrelets nested close to glaciers.  Glaciers have been gone from Agattu for centuries, but nevertheless there was a nest.  Determined to learn more about this elusive bird, Kaler returned to Agattu two more summers with partner Leah Kenney,  finding 11 nests in  2006 and 17 in 2008.

Scattered, isolated and camouflaged nest sites containing a single egg, nondescript feather coloring and the birds’ sneaky habit of returning to the nest only in the gloom of evening and early morning kept researchers from finding nests and unraveling secrets of murrelet reproduction.  Agattu nests are the most in just one area and represent half of all known nests.  Kaler and Kenney, in a soon-to-be published work, were first to confirm the diminutive murrelet nested in the Aleutians and to reveal other murrelet mysteries. 

In their study this summer, Kaler and Kenney documented nest survival and chick growth and discovered grim news about chick survival.   While egg predators and non-hatching eggs led to some nest failure, more commonly chicks were discovered dead in the nest. Hidden cameras trained on the nests revealed that, despite attention from parents, chicks died either from weather in a part of the world known as the “Birthplace of the Winds” or starvation.  Only about half the eggs hatched and only 1 out of 9 chicks lived to fledge in the 17 nests studied this summer.  Even after leaving the nest, life remains hard for fledgling chicks. Fledglings, half the size of the adults, must fend for themselves in the open ocean. The low reproductive rate observed by Kaler and Kenney may be the lowest of any seabird species.

This new information about Kittlitz’s murrelets is critical because there are only about 10,000 world-wide, their range limited to Alaska and adjacent Siberia. And their  numbers are declining.  Monitoring their core  range in southeast Alaska showed population declines of 80% over the past 20 years with oil spills, gill nets, changes in diet influenced by climate change, and loss of nesting habitat due to glacial recession thought to be factors.  Kittlitz’s murrelet is proposed for listing as a T & E species, so Kaler and Kenney hope to continue a five year study into the life history of this elusive bird. Their snapshot of nest survival at Agattu sheds light on this mysterious bird’s fragile existence and raises new questions about why chick survival is so grim.    


Contact Info: Poppy Benson, (907)226-4606, poppy_benson@fws.gov



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