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KODIAK: Expedition Yields a Jackpot of Data about Secretive Sea Bird, the Kittlitz’s Murrelet
Alaska Region, September 11, 2009
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Corey Shake sets up a camera at a Kittlitz’s Murrelet nest site while colleague Christina Wells collects data at the nest. James Lawonn/USFWS
Corey Shake sets up a camera at a Kittlitz’s Murrelet nest site while colleague Christina Wells collects data at the nest. James Lawonn/USFWS - Photo Credit: n/a
A red fox caught in the act of depredating a KIMU nest.  USFWS
A red fox caught in the act of depredating a KIMU nest. USFWS - Photo Credit: n/a
A Kittlitz’s Murrelet chick is measured to determine growth rate. Christina Wells/USFWS
A Kittlitz’s Murrelet chick is measured to determine growth rate. Christina Wells/USFWS - Photo Credit: n/a

Arcticle by James Lawonn, Refuge Wildlife Technician

A strenuous expedition to a remote area of Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge has again yielded a jackpot of information on a little known bird species, the Kittlitz’s murrelet. James Lawonn, seasonal wildlife technician for Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, and Cory Shake and Christina Wells, refuge volunteers, spent 70 days backpacking through the mountains of southern Kodiak Island this summer, collecting data on the Kittlitz’s murrelet, or KIMU, a rare seabird recently found to nest on the island.

The Kittlitz’s murrelet is a cryptic seabird whose secretive habits and preference for nesting in rugged, mountainous terrain limited serious study until recently. Most of the scientific community’s information about the Kittlitz’s murrelet has been collected by observers from at-sea surveys. These studies gave researchers some idea about the bird’s population trends, feeding habits, and sources of mortality at sea, but prior to 2005, only about 30 nests for the species had ever been described. This year Kodiak’s researchers found 13 KIMU nests and collected data on nesting habitat, breeding behavior, territoriality, feeding rates, and predation on four different study sites. Moreover, nesting was documented at two new sites and flight behavior suggestive of site nesting use association was documented at two other sites. The work performed this year represents the second year of a planned 5-year cooperative study between Kodiak Refuge and the USGS Alaska Science Center.

A dedicated effort to find nests on Kodiak Island began in 2008 as part of a larger effort to better understand the cause of this species’ recent population declines.  Five nests were discovered during the 2008 field season, and prompted the expansion of the study to a larger area during the 2009 field season. The total of 18 KIMU nests studied over the last two years on the Refuge represent over 20% of the total number of nests ever found, making the Refuge a very important center for the study of this species.

In addition to finding nests, the Refuge and USGS continued to pioneer the use of early morning surveys to assess seasonal occupancy of terrestrial sites and flight behavior. Though this method had been applied in studying the KIMU’s close cousin, the marbled murrelet, it had not been applied to Kittlitz’s murrelets. The Kodiak study also includes recording chick feeding rates and predation events through the use of hidden cameras at nest sites; determining the utility of radar to assess seasonal occupancy and flight behavior; and eventually placing satellite transmitters on adult KIMUs to determine feeding locations, overwintering habitat, and general flight behavior. Kodiak Refuge plans to continue to play an important role in the conservation of this species through its emphasis on research. With continued effort, the work done at Kodiak will have lasting positive impacts on Kittlitz’s Murrelets throughout their range.

The Kittlitz’s Murrelet is of particular conservation concern, since all of its surveyed populations in Alaska have declined substantially over the last 20 years, making the collection of basic biological information about the species a necessity. This trend prompted the Service to designate the species as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.


Contact Info: Matthew (James) Lawonn, 907-487-0246, Matthew_Lawonn@fws.gov



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