Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
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KODIAK: Refuge Continues to Spearhead Kittlitz’s Murrelet Nesting Ecology Research
Alaska Region, November 19, 2013
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Adult Kittlitz's murrelet incubating an egg in late July.
Adult Kittlitz's murrelet incubating an egg in late July. - Photo Credit: USFWS 2013 KIMU Crew
Kittlitz's murrelet egg in a nest scrape on scree slope.
Kittlitz's murrelet egg in a nest scrape on scree slope. - Photo Credit: USFWS 2013 KIMU Crew
Kittlitz's murrelet 2013 research team (Danny Raleigh, Tamara Payton, and Tim Knudson).
Kittlitz's murrelet 2013 research team (Danny Raleigh, Tamara Payton, and Tim Knudson). - Photo Credit: USFWS 2013 KIMU Crew

By Tim Knudson
Graduate Student - Kodiak Refuge Kittlitz's Murrelet Study
Southern Illinois University
Contact: knudson@siu.edu


Research conducted on the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge continues to shed light on the nesting ecology of the Kittlitz’s murrelet. The 2013 field season marked the sixth year of a long term study on this rare and mysterious seabird. Leading the project was a graduate student from Southern Illinois University who is a returning volunteer from the 2010 field season. He was accompanied by two refuge volunteers who were both new to Alaska. The three scientists spent two months in the remote southwestern part of Kodiak Island sleeping in tents while researching this cryptic alcid’s nesting ecology. Living on canned and dried foods they spent a secluded summer hiking rugged terrain between four base camps in a quest to find the nests of this secretive species. The days in the beautiful refugium were spent systematically searching scree slopes in hopes of seeing one of these elusive birds flush from their ‘nest bowl’ revealing a single green egg with brown spots. The nest bowls are scraped in the scree below a larger nest rock that provides the incubating adult and later the chick with cover from weather conditions and concealment from predators. Upon discovery the biologists carryout a strict data collection protocol that takes about ten minutes before they leave the area to encourage the parent bird to return quickly to the nest.

The Kittlitz’s murrelet, nicknamed KIMU, has breeding plumage that blends in with the rocky environment so well that it’s nearly impossible to spot as it sits incubating without flushing the bird. Once the egg has hatched finding nests is even more difficult because the growing chick is left alone in the nest bowl for most of the remainder of its time on the rocky slopes. Both adults share in the incubation and rearing responsibilities of the chick. Parents provision the fast growing young with fish from the ocean visiting the chick briefly during times when they will be less likely to give away the location of the nest (early morning, late evening, and in foggy weather conditions). Small motion-sensitive cameras painted to blend in with the surrounding habitat provide valuable data on feeding rate, diet composition, and evidence of nest fate. With these cameras biologists are able to monitor the chronology of the nesting murrelets from discovery to fledge. The Biologists also conduct three nest checks when chicks are between four and 22 days of age to obtain growth rate data to better understand the uniquely rapid growth rate of KIMU young. The availability of high quality forage fish is expected to have an impact on the success of this bird species. The faster chicks grow the sooner they can get out to the ocean away from their main terrestrial predator, red fox, which have had a huge impact on nest success in this study. Depredation of nests has been much lower the past two years of the project, and one hypothesis for this is that the tundra vole and/or ptarmigan population could offer enough sustenance to keep foxes in low elevation areas away from murrelets. On our Kodiak study sites, KIMU appear to avoid areas of high predator concentrations by nesting in a biological desert low in the soil nutrients necessary to sustain vegetation growth. A year with low vole or ptarmigan numbers could result in foxes expanding their range to these rugged higher elevation habitats in search of alternative prey sources, like KIMU chicks.

For the KIMU crew every day was special in such an amazing place, but a day when a nest was discovered created an unforgettable memory. Spending hundreds of hours side-sloping in the ultramaphic rock in hopes of seeing the outer white retrices indicative of this species was all the motivation the crew needed. Special moments from this season included a day of discovering two nests within an hour of each other and finding a hatching egg. These findings contributed to the season total of 17 nests which is about average for the project over the six years. What wasn’t typical was the nest success. In the first four years of the study there where 53 nests found of which only nine fledged for a 17% success rate. In the past two seasons (2012 & 2013) the nesting success has improved reaching nearly fifty percent with eight of the 17 birds fledging this year. Biologist are breathing a little easier after seeing this increase in hopes that these numbers can help sustain the population from further declines. Still there is much that needs to be revealed about the population of this rare seabird. Since the projects start in 2008 the refuge has nearly quadrupled the total number of nests ever recorded. The Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge Kittlitz’s murrelet project is the only one of its kind providing crucial information on the ecology of one of the least studied birds in North America. With 95% of the population residing in Alaska the insight this study provides is priceless.

The success of this field season would not have been possible without the hard work and dedication of volunteers Tamara Payton and Danny Raleigh. Other valuable contributions to the project include: Jim Lovvorn, Bill Pyle, John Piatt, James Lawonn, Lisa Hupp, and the staff of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. A big thanks needs to go out to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Alaska Fish and Wildlife Grant for providing funding to continue the project for the 2013 and 2014 field seasons.

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