While hiking the rocky high country on one of the westernmost islands in Alaska a few years ago, Robb Kaler stumbled onto a birder’s dream. Walking around a knee-high volcanic boulder, Kaler flushed a plump little seabird. The bird bounced off a rock and disappeared into the fog. Kaler looked down and saw a turquoise egg in a shallow cup of tundra.
“I knew it was something great,” Kaler said.
Kaler had stumbled upon a bird, the Kittlitz’s murrelet, so elusive that biologists had during the last century written about finding nests just two dozen times. The secretive little bird had become a symbol of species threatened by shrinking glaciers.
The discovery was just the beginning for Kaler, a biologist who was studying a species of ptarmigan on the island for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. When he and his field assistant and partner Leah Kenney combed the higher spots of the 55,535-acre island for Kittlitz’s murrelet nests, they found 11 in 2006, 17 the year after that, and 14 nests last year.
“They’re a tremendous find,” said John Piatt, a biologist with the USGS Alaska Science Center in Anchorage who has studied murrelets since the 1980s. “When he found (the 11 nests in 2006), our jaws dropped. Up to that point, people had found only about 20 nests, and almost all of them were accidental finds where they just flushed a bird when they were looking for something else.”
About 90 percent of the world’s Kittlitz’s murrelets live around glaciers in Icy Bay, Glacier Bay and Prince William Sound, perhaps attracted by the oily capelin fish that thrive where cold glacial waters enter the ocean.
Researcher Kathy Kuletz wrote a report for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2004 in which she mentioned an 84 percent decrease in the birds in Prince William Sound since the 1970s, and similar decreases in Kenai Fjords and near Malaspina Glacier. She mentioned a possible tie between the retreat of tidewater glaciers and the decline of the birds.
The Kittlitz’s murrelets on Agattu, in the Aleutians, so far from other populations of the birds, are a bit of a head-scratcher for scientists.
“It’s an interesting remote outpost,” Piatt said of Agattu. “They may even be a different species that looks like the others but is genetically different.”
Across Alaska, the birds have a curious tendency to nest high in mountains near the ocean, which is perhaps a strategy to avoid foxes and nest-raiding birds.
“To find safe ground from predators, you have to go up,” Piatt said.
“Their habitat is so hard to access,” Kaler said while in Homer waiting to ship out to Agattu for the summer to continue studying the rare murrelets.
“(Finding a nest is) like finding a needle in a haystack.”
Biologists have also recently found a few nests on the west coast of Kodiak Island, which — along with the Agattu birds — counters the notion that the Kittlitz’s murrelet needs glaciers to survive.
“The western Aleutian population suggests that maybe they can persist without glaciers,” Kaler said. “We’re finding a population of breeding Kittlitz’s murrelets where there hasn’t been a glacier in 10,000 years.”
This summer, Kaler returns to what will become he and Kenney’s own personal island to focus on the birds’ chicks and to try and find out more about what Juneau biologist Michelle Kissling called “one of the rarest and least understood seabirds in the world.”
They will try to find out why many of the Kittlitz’s murrelets chicks don’t survive to be adults, a problem at Agattu and elsewhere. Kaler has found that less than one egg out of every 10 laid by Agattu birds produces a chick that leaves the nest.
“They’re declining throughout their range rather dramatically. Why is this?” Piatt said. “We think their feeding might be poor. The chicks (at Agattu) are skinny little runts.”
This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute.