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KODIAK: Like a Spy Thriller: Refuge project reveals the secret breeding activities of a rare seabird
Alaska Region, October 6, 2011
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Volunteer Deanna Russell holding a KIMU chick after recording growth data.
Volunteer Deanna Russell holding a KIMU chick after recording growth data. - Photo Credit: J. Lawonn, USFWS.
Volunteer Steve Crane floating a KIMU egg in water to estimate its hatch date.
Volunteer Steve Crane floating a KIMU egg in water to estimate its hatch date. - Photo Credit: J. Lawonn, USFWS.
Remote camera image of adult delivering fish to chick.
Remote camera image of adult delivering fish to chick. - Photo Credit: USFWS

By: James Lawonn, Refuge Wildlife Technician

 

Like a secret agent in a paperback thriller, Kittlitz’s murrelet, one of the rarest and most enigmatic seabirds in the North Pacific, had successfully eluded Refuge biologists for a long time. Since the founding of Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge (KNWR) in 1941, the clandestine breeding activities of this species, abbreviated “KIMU” by biologists, had been suspected but never documented. Occasionally, they were spotted feeding on the ocean among the more common marbled murrelets, but their nesting habits were never known, and it’s not surprising why. KIMUs are so rare and so well adapted to remaining undetected on their breeding grounds that, prior to 2006, only 25 nests had ever been discovered within its range in coastal Alaska and Russia. Now, following 4 years of dedicated research on Kodiak Island, 53 additional nests have been added to the total, and a large measure of the secret life of this fascinating species is beginning to come into focus.

As we learn more about the breeding ecology of KIMUs, it becomes easy to see how the species had eluded us for so long. Adults are cryptically colored, blending in perfectly with their preferred rocky nesting habitat. They piece together inconspicuous, stony ground nests on steep, scree-covered slopes near mountain tops: terrain that is difficult to access on foot. They often fly very low to the ground when near their nesting habitat, making them difficult to detect, especially since many of their flights occur in the faint light of early morning or late evening. Further, KIMU nests appear to be spread widely across a landscape, making the discovery of one nest unlikely to lead to the immediate discovery of another. In many ways, Kodiak’s KIMUs have perfected the art of concealment.

Naturally, study of a bird that is as cagey as a spy required a lot of hard work, not to mention a bit of cutting-edge gadgetry. During each breeding season of late-May to late August during 2008-2011, a team of three KNWR researchers backpacked and camped for periods of up to 92 days in remote southwestern areas of the Refuge. By maintaining a continuous, careful watch over potential nesting habitat, the team was able to closely monitor the progression of nesting activities. They systematically searched scree slopes for nests, and placed camouflaged motion-triggered cameras near them when discovered. These remote cameras helped the team observe feeding, fledging, and predation at nest sites, greatly enhancing our knowledge of the species.

By any measure the Kodiak Kittlitz’s murrelet project has made a tremendous contribution to our knowledge of a fascinating species. What researchers at KNWR have learned will ultimately be used to help in the conservation of this secretive seabird, both on the Refuge, and across the species’ entire global range. With foresight, there will always be a place in Alaskan skies for the KIMU, even though you may need wildlife spies to spot it!


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



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