Skip Navigation

Kittlitzs Murrelet Study

KIMU Camera

The Kittlitz’s murrelet (KIMU) is one of the rarest and least known seabirds in the world. This species was first discovered nesting within the boundaries of Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge in 2006 when a botanist working on a remote mountain stumbled upon a large downy chick in a nest. The nest was little more than a shallow depression in a small patch of moss and lichens on the side of a rocky ridge above an alpine lake at 900m (2953ft). After discovery of the nest, Kodiak Refuge partnered with the USGS Alaska Science Center, the USFWS Endangered Species Division, and Oregon State University to systematically study the nesting ecology of this species. Funding for the research has been provided by several sources including the Kodiak Refuge biological program, USGS-USFWS Science Support Partnership Program, USFWS Endangered Species Division, USGS Alaska Science Center, and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Alaska Fish and Wildlife Fund.

The KIMU is of particular conservation concern, since the world population was recently estimated to be less than 57,000 birds, and its surveyed populations in Alaska have declined substantially over the last 20 years. This trend has prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate the species as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Because so little was known about the biology of KIMU the collection of basic biological information about the species was a necessity to understand possible reasons for the decline. 

A dedicated effort to find nests on Kodiak Island began in 2008 as part of a larger effort to better understand the causes of this species’ recent population declines. Since initiation of the study motion sensitive cameras placed at nest sites have produced thousands of camera images revealing new information about the bird’s nesting biology, and greatly expanding our knowledge of feeding and growth of KIMU chicks, nest attendance rates, and causes of nest failure. For example, sand lance has been the most commonly delivered forage fish, and growth rates of Kodiak chicks may be high compared with a comparable study of KIMU at Agattu Island in the western Aleutians. Predation may be a limiting factor on Kodiak, accounting for 70% of nest failure or loss over the last four years. Camera surveillance reveled that red fox were the leading predator, but other commonly observed potential predators include the common raven, bald eagle, and black-billed magpie. After analysis, the data gathered is expected to help managers identify potential KIMU nesting habitat throughout their range in Alaska, an important step in pinpointing the cause of the species’ decline. A total of 74 KIMU nests have been studied over the last five years representing over 30% of all nests ever found. The Refuge habitats that support KIMU will continue to be very important to the study of this species.
2013 Kittlitz's Murrelet Progress Report
2012 Kittlitz's Murrelet Research Poster 
2012 Kittlitz's Murrelet Progress Report

To access reports from previous years, please see the following pages.

2011 Progress Report: Breeding Behavior and Ecology of Kittlitz's Murrelet in Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska 
ABSTRACT
Kittlitz’s murrelet (Brachyramphus brevirostris) is a rare seabird that nests in remote mountainous terrain in coastal areas of Alaska and the Russian Far East. It is one of the most poorly-known birds in North America and very little is known about its nesting ecology. For the fourth consecutive year, we studied the breeding biology and behavior of Kittlitz’s murrelets on southwest Kodiak Island, Alaska. We systematically searched nesting habitat for active nests, placed motion-sensitive cameras on a subset of nests to assess chick feeding rates and nest predation, and collected morphometric and genetic data on chicks. We periodically visited nests to determine their status and to measure chick growth rates. Following the end of breeding activities, we sampled ground cover at nest sites and random plots to characterize nesting habitat. We discovered 22 active nests during 2011; 14 of these nests produced chicks, of which four fledged. Chick provisioning, nest depredation, and egg abandonment were recorded at 19 nests using remote cameras. We also conducted 16 audio-visual surveys of Kittlitz’s murrelets in the vicinity of documented nesting habitat and recorded 372 total detections at five survey sites. 

 2010 Progress Report: Breeding Behavior and Ecology of Kittlitz's Murrelet in Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska


ABSTRACT

Kittlitz’s murrelet (Brachyramphus brevirostris) is a rare seabird that nests in remote mountainous terrain in coastal areas of Alaska and the Russian Far East. It is one of the least-studied birds in North America and very little is known about its nesting ecology. For a third consecutive year, we studied the breeding biology and behavior of Kittlitz’s murrelets on southwest Kodiak Island. We located nests by systematically searching nesting habitat, placed motion sensitive cameras on a subset of nests, and collected morphometric and genetic data on chicks after they hatched. We periodically monitored nests to determine the status of breeding birds. Following the end of breeding activities, we sampled ground cover at nest sites and random plots to characterize critical nesting habitat. During 2010, 16 nests were discovered. Ten of these nest produced chicks, of which four fledged. Chick provisioning, nest depredation and egg abandonment were recorded at eight nests using remote cameras. We also conducted 23 audio-visual surveys of birds flying to and from nesting areas, recording 238 total detections from four locations.

Full Report

2009 Progress Report
ABSTRACT

Kittlitz’s murrelet (Brachyramphus brevirostris) is a rare seabird that nests in remote alpine terrain in coastal areas of Alaska and the Russian Far East. It is considered to be one of the least-studied birds in North America and very little is known about its nesting ecology. We studied Kittlitz’s murrelet during the summer of 2009 in known and suspected nesting habitats on western Kodiak Island. This effort represented the second year of a five-year research project focusing on the breeding ecology of Kittlitz’s murrelet in Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. Thirteen nests were discovered and monitored over the 10-week study period. Five nests produced chicks, and one chick fledged. Images of nest depredation and egg abandonment were recorded by hidden camera, and detailed nest provisioning data were also obtained from images. We recorded nest characteristics and quantified characteristics of ground cover surrounding nest sites. Pre-dawn audio-visual surveys performed in 2008 were used successfully to locate nesting habitat in 2009. Audio-visual surveys were continued in 2009, and 32 surveys were conducted in several locations.
Full Report

2008 Progress Report

ABSTRACT

Kittlitz‘s murrelet (Brachyramphus brevirostris) is a rare seabird that nests in coastal mountains of Alaska and the Russian Far east. Little is known of their nesting ecology because of the relative inaccessibility of their breeding habitat and dispersed nesting behavior. To address this information gap, we initiated a 5-year project during summer, 2008, to evaluate breeding ecology in western Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. Following protocols established in a 2008 study plan (Appendix G), we systematically searched for nests and monitored nests found. We sampled and compared habitat characteristics at nest sites and at plots distributed in surrounding rocky terrain to ascertain habitat preferences. Finally, we observed and recorded the inland flight and call behavior using a modified audio-visual survey protocol originally designed for the closely related marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus).

Five nests were discovered and monitored over a 10-week study period, all within large patches of barren ultramafic rocks formations . Because none of the nests survived the incubation stage, we were unable to evaluate chick meals or chick growth rates. We recorded nest characteristics and quantified the ground cover surrounding nest sites, and used Discriminant Function Analysis (DFA) to quantify possible nesting site characteristics of Kittlitz‘s Murrelets. Nests tended to be found at high elevation (>400 m), on scree slopes where rocks are 1-10 cm in size, and where the ground is almost completely barren (no moss, grass, flowering plants or
shrubs). Pre-dawn audio-visual surveys revealed a range of activity and behaviors. Adult Kittlitz‘s murrelets fly inland throughout the breeding season (May-August) and often vocalize while flying. Peak murrelet activity, including flight and call behavior, occurred in July. Murrelets continued to fly inland and interact through their flight and calling behavior after all known nests in the vicinity had failed. Activity was recorded at two outlying ultramafic sites, suggesting that these areas also support habitat suitable for nesting.
Full Report

 

Last Updated: Nov 05, 2014
Return to main navigation