Like a secret agent in a paperback thriller, the Kittlitzs murrelet, one of the rarest and most enigmatic seabirds in the North Pacific, had successfully eluded Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge biologists for years.
Since the refuges establishment in 1941, biologists had suspected but never documented the species clandestine breeding activities on the refuge. Occasionally, the furtive birds were spotted feeding on the ocean among the more common marbled murrelets. But their nesting habits were not known.
Its not surprising why.
Unlike 98 percent of seabirds, Kittlitzs murrelets dont nest colonially. They nest in rugged mountains near glaciers or in previously glaciated areas up to 45 miles inland. And theyre smalljust 10 inches long.
Kittlitzs murrelets are so rare and so well adapted to remaining undetected
on their breeding grounds that as of 2006 only 25 nests had been discovered within the birds range in coastal Alaska and Russia.
Now, after four years of dedicated research on Kodiak Island, 53 nests have been added to the total, and a large measure of the species secret life is coming into focus.
As we learn more about the breeding ecology of Kittlitzs murrelets, it is easy to see how they eluded biologists 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, screecovered slopes near mountaintopsdifficult terrain to access on foot. They often fly low to the ground when near their nesting habitat, making them hard to detect, especially because those flights often occur in the faint light of early morning or late evening.
Further, their 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, the Kittlitzs murrelets at Kodiak Refuge have perfected the art of concealment.
Naturally, study of a bird that is as cagey as a spy requires vigilance, not to mention hightech gadgetry.
During each breeding season, from late May to late August, in 2008 to 2011, a team of three Kodiak Refuge researchers backpacked and camped for periods of up to 92 days in remote southwestern areas of the 1.9 millionacre refuge, which provides nesting habitat for more than 100 bird species.
By maintaining a continuous, careful watch over potential nesting habitat, the team was able to monitor the progression of nesting activities. The researchers systematically searched scree slopes for the birds singleegg nests and placed camouflaged motiontriggered cameras near them when discovered. These remote cameras helped the team observe feeding, fledging and predation during the 54to60day nest period. Some of the more interesting findings are the unexpectedly rapid growth of chicks, the delivery of only very nutritious food fish by adults to the nest, and the potential importance of nest depredation by foxes.
The global population of the Kittlitzs murrelets is estimated at a few tens of thousands, but it is believed to have undergone steep declines in several of its core areas in Alaska. Reasons for the declines have not been determined conclusively, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified at least two sources of humancaused mortalitygillnet fisheries and oil spillsand several other threats, including glacial retreat and disturbance by marine tours and flightseeing operations. Since 2004, the Kittlitzs murrelet has been a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
What researchers at Kodiak Refuge have learned will be used to help in the conservation of the secretive seabirdon the refuge and across its global range. With foresight, there always will be a place in Alaskan skies for Kittlitzs murrelets, even though you may need counterintelligence gear to spot them.
James Lawonn, a seasonal wildlife technician at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, is pursuing his masters degree in wildlife biology at Oregon State University