Signature Species of Glacier Bay: Naturalist Journeys Group Appreciates Kittlitz’s Murrelets

Kittlitz’s Murrelet, Glacier Bay

Kittlitz’s Murrelets, when compared to Humpback Whales and calving glaciers, command little attention from visitors to Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. But when visitors share the tour boat with Naturalist Journey’s guides Peg Abbott and Greg Smith, these veteran’s enthusiasm spreads and many heed the call as they grab cameras and exclaim,  “Up on deck, Kittlitz’s…”   This year, on both our Alaska trips, June, to Seward and July, to Icy Straits and Glacier Bay our groups tallied good numbers.

Despite their small size, Kittlitz’s command our attention for their toughness. Seeing them in the wild seems like a prize given for effort put in. We see Kittlitz’s only when entering their glacier-influenced realm.  Seen up close they are beautiful with speckled plumage, white faces and tail tips. On a moving boat, most sightings are brief, and a camera comes in handy to capture their fine points for later inspection. Knowing their habits helps one pay attention.

Glacier Bay National Park is a vital stronghold for this rapidly-declining species. The species is restricted to Alaska and the Russian Far East, Alaska by far hosting the bulk of the population, and Glacier Bay hosting nearly half of that.  Despite vistas of glorious tidewater glaciers all around, something is amiss here, as estimates for Glacier Bay are a loss of 85% between 1991 and 2008.  It is suspected that wide scale glacial retreat has drastically changed available coastal habitats, where productive feed occurs alongside productive nesting habitats.

Native Americans knew of the mountainside nest habits of this species long before the modern research community recorded it. While most seabirds are colonial, Kittlitz’s for the most part go it alone, a single pair of male and female share incubating the single egg, and feeding a single chick. Widely spaced, their cryptic coloration helps to secure nest success.  One research team found local Peregrine Falcon numbers are on the rise, and noted that young murrelets can make a tasty morsel.  But inclement weather and unpredictable food supply take more of a toll, and many die before fledging. One researcher found nine nests, from which only one chick surviving to reach the sea.

Each Kittlitz’s Murrelet that we see on the water lived through some 54 perilous days of incubation to fledging in a realm of rock, ice, wind, and often snow. Successful adults often chose south-facing slopes where snow retreats sooner, or wind-razed areas that stay open. A few nests have been found on bedrock. Kittlitz’s eggs blend with rock colors of mountain talus slopes and scree and gravels associated with glacial outwash. The main parental contribution is that of incubating eggs and feeding chicks; many young die of exposure or starvation – even seeing one seems a bit of a miracle.  Adults do not feed or tend fledged chicks, and it is thought that these lone and vulnerable fledglings use the water and gravity of fast flowing streams, associated with glaciers, to reach the sea. Weak flyers at first, Kittlitz’s chicks can swim well.

In the turbid, waters where currents cause shallow upwellings, Kittlitz’s Murrelets feed on Pacific Sand Lance, Capelin, herring and other small fishes; at times they also feed on euphasids.  They prefer turbid waters of the middle and upper bay, associated with glacial streams. They seem to prosper in areas near stable glaciers.

Researchers across their Bering Sea-centered range are concerned. Kittlitz’s Murrelets are in the spotlight as global climate change occurs. We were heartened to see park-sponsored research teams braving the elements on the cloudy, cold day we visited. From boats and from small islands we watched them counting, sorting, and collecting data to better understand what the limiting factors might be.  Outside the bay, in adjacent Icy Straits, another research team (Kissling, M. et al), from 2005 to 2009 banded 340 birds, radio tracked over 100 adults and four juveniles and found eight nests. The Southeast Alaska Inventory and Monitoring Network (SEAN) reports annually on research for this species.

Worldwide, both Birdlife International and the International World Conservation Union list Kittlitz’s Murrelets as critically endangered. The US lists them as a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act, a listing that issues a strong call to management agencies, local fisheries, tour operators and others to come up with plans to stabilize the population ahead of actual listing.  The Center for Biodiversity listing petitioned their in 2009, and their summary is excellent for further reading.

Under these odds we were thrilled to spend time watching this tenacious little species, at home in its glacial realm.

Read more: Piatt, J.F. et al. 2011 Status and trend of the Kittlitz’s Murrelets.

Brachyramphus brevirostris in GLACIER BAY, Alaska

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