Data collected during a summer study by the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge may help put the Kittlitz’s Murrelet, a rare black-and-white Alaskan seabird, on the endangered species list.
Over the summer the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge sent a team of four people to the southwest part of Kodiak Island to study the nests of the birds for two months.
This is the fifth year the Refuge has studied the species. The project started in 2006 when people working on a botany study on the south end of Kodiak Island heard the bird calling in the area. The first nest was found that year, and the study began shortly after.
The bird is found in other parts of Alaska, largely near glacial areas, but not many studies have been completed because the murrelet is so elusive.
“It’s one of the least-studied sea birds in North America, so there are a lot of gaps in knowledge,” refuge biology technician Heather Mackey said.
Mackey and volunteers Bob Taylor, Marie McCann and Sonia Kumar spent the first month of the study trying to find the birds’ nests, which required stealth and patience. The team hiked across slopes, spacing themselves five to 10 yards apart, and waited for birds to take off from the ground so they could determine where the birds’ takeoff points, or nests, were located.
“The only way to find a nest is by flushing the bird,” Mackey said. “That is having the adult take off from the nest. They are so well camouflaged you can’t pick out a nest really.”
Mackey said the nests are found in high alpine areas of Kodiak Island.
“It’s really difficult to walk on so it is less likely to have predators,” Mackey said. “The most common predator is the red fox.”
Once the nests were located, the team spent the second half of the trip collecting data. They installed motion-activated cameras to gather photos and habitual characteristics like how often adults visit the nest and what type of fish they bring their chicks.
“From that we’re trying to get a feel for the reproductive ecology of those birds, and everything involving the feeding ecology,” Mackey said.
The team found 21 nests this summer; they found 22 last summer.
One number that increased significantly was the number of nests that produced young.
“Nine out of the 21 nests produced young this year,” biologist Robin Corcoran said. “That’s 43 percent. From 2008 to 2011, it was about 17 percent.”
The data gathered by the refuge will be combined with data from other studies from Southeast Alaska and Agattu Island to be submitted under the Endangered Species Act.
“In general what holds up the listing is that Fish and Wildlife lacks the information to evaluate whether or not it should be listed,” Corcoran said. “A lot of these birds are rare and elusive. They were never incredibly abundant and are really difficult to study.”
A final report is expected by the end of this year. There is no timeline for listing the bird as endangered.