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KODIAK: Refuge Doubles Search Effort for Rare Seabird Nests
Alaska Region, November 21, 2016
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Kittlitz's murrelet 2016 research team (left to right - Katie Stoner, Hannah Abbot, Baily Yliniemi, Timothy Knudson, Adam Price, Aimee Van Tatenhove, and Alivia Sheffield.
Kittlitz's murrelet 2016 research team (left to right - Katie Stoner, Hannah Abbot, Baily Yliniemi, Timothy Knudson, Adam Price, Aimee Van Tatenhove, and Alivia Sheffield. - Photo Credit: USFWS 2016 KIMU Crew
Kittlitz's murrelet chick losing its down less than 24 hours before fledge. Photo captured by digital game camera.
Kittlitz's murrelet chick losing its down less than 24 hours before fledge. Photo captured by digital game camera. - Photo Credit: USFWS 2016 KIMU Crew
Adult Kittlitz's murrelet spotted incubating its egg on a steep mountain slope.
Adult Kittlitz's murrelet spotted incubating its egg on a steep mountain slope. - Photo Credit: USFWS 2016 KIMU Crew

Written by Biological Technician Katie Stoner and Biological Intern Aimee Van Tatenhove

 

The Kittlitz’s murrelet (abbreviated KIMU) is a small, long-lived seabird in the Alcid family with an average life-span of 15 years. The species is a solitary nester, and clutch size consists of one cryptically-colored egg. Monitoring the long-term breeding ecology of KIMU may reveal important indicators of environmental change, but investigating reproduction at remote, inaccessible nests poses many challenges. The accessible habitat in a unique geography of a small population on Kodiak Island, AK presents a valuable opportunity for nest monitoring.

Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge (KNWR) implemented the Kittlitz’s murrelet nesting ecology project in 2008 to identify nesting habitat and record breeding behavior on Kodiak Island, Alaska. The project has focused on monitoring nest success, recording habitat characteristics, and measuring chick growth associated with quantity and composition of forage fish deliveries. 2016 marks the ninth year of the study, and this year the Refuge doubled its search efforts by devoting two crews to searching for nests of the mysterious bird. Each crew consisted of two to three volunteers led by a returning technician. Returning technicians included Southern Illinois graduate student Timothy Knudson and 2015 volunteer Katie Stoner. For project leaders, this increased search capacity opened up the exciting potential to discover more nests.

The 2016 field crew spent over seventy days living and working in the backcountry of southwest Kodiak. Their season began in early May, when seven researchers arrived in Kodiak and began preparing for an 11-week field season. Two weeks later, the crews departed for the study area with over 2800 lbs. of field gear, seven 50-60 lb. backpacks, and two portable tipis for base-camp shelter.

To systematically search for nests, the crews spent most of the summer in scree habitat favored by Kittlitz’s murrelets: rocky talus slopes at high elevations with little to no vegetation. Teams walked horizontal lines to discover nests by flushing incubating adults. When an adult flushed, the researchers collected egg measurements, floated the egg to estimate age, and placed a digital game camera on the nest to record nest events.

In total, the 2016 search effort yielded seventeen active nests. Although average nest initiation is mid-June, 65% of nests discovered in 2016 initiated in mid to late May. On average, adults flushed from the nest when searchers walked within three meters. For three of the nests, searchers used sharp observation skills to spot the camouflaged adult bird prior to flush. In one case, the crew stealthily placed a game camera three meters away from an incubating adult without flushing it.

After a dismal nest success rate of 0% during the 2015 field season, the crews were eager to observe breeding results and behavior in 2016. Nest success throughout the study (2008-2015) has averaged 23%, but has ranged widely by year from 0 to 50%. Seven of the 17 nests discovered in 2016 successfully hatched chicks, and three of these chicks survived to fledge before the end of the summer. For the first time in the history of the study, the crews banded chicks while collecting growth measurements. Nest success reached 18% for the 2016 field season, but still fell below average success throughout the nine-year study. Red fox predation was the primary cause of nest failure in 2016, with foxes depredating thirteen of the discovered nests (76.5%).

Currently, the study is examining the availability and quality of forage fish supplied to chicks as factors for nest success. Researchers hypothesize that consumption of low-energy forage fish extends the pre-fledge period and lengthens chick exposure to predators. Future studies may investigate the influences of both forage base and predation on nest success to determine if population dynamics are more influenced through top-down control by predators or bottom-up food availability.

Thanks to everyone who made this field season possible, especially Timothy Knudson and volunteers Hannah Abbot, Adam Price, Baily Yliniemi, and Alivia Sheffield. Valuable contributions to the project include: Robin Corcoran, Bill Pyle, John Piatt, James Lawonn, and the staff of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. A big thanks to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for providing funding to continue the project for the 2016 field season.


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