NATURAL HISTORY

KITTLITZ’S MURRELET } Brachyramphus brevirostris
FAMILY: Alcidae

DESCRIPTION: The Kittlitz’s murrelet is a small, diving seabird of about a foot in length, with a wingspan of about eight inches and a weight between 190 and 260 grams. In breeding plumage, the bird is mostly gray with off-white or buff underparts; it may also be golden or sandy colored. In winter, the birds appear black and white from a distance, with a white collar, a gray band across the chest, and a white face. Males and females are similar in size and coloration.

HABITAT: This species is found in association with marine tidewater glaciers and glacial-influenced waters, often in protected fjords or among islands. It nests on steep, barren mountainsides and talus slopes above the timberline, generally near glaciers and cirques. The nest site is on the ground with little vegetation, as much as 1,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level and several miles inland, often at the base of a large rock and possibly near a flowing stream.

RANGE: Within western North America, the Kittlitz’s murrelet occurs only in Alaska, occupying five distinct regions: southeastern Alaska, southcoastal Alaska, southwesten Alaska, Western Alaska, and northern Alaska. An estimated 10 percent of the world population also nests in the Russian Far East from the Okhotsk Sea to the Chukchi Sea.

MIGRATION: The Kittlitz’s murrelet is primarily a local migrant, though its winter range in Alaska is poorly understood and its winter range in Russia is largely unknown. Long-distance migration of the species has been recorded for the Russian coast, with migrants and wintering birds occurring as far as Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands.

BREEDING: Kittlitz’s Murrelets are non-colonial, selective, and secretive breeders. Not much is known about their reproductive habits, but they are presumed to be monogamous. Nesting patterns vary across the regions in which the species nests, but it has been determined that egg-laying occurs in May and June and hatching occurs in June and July. Each pair of birds lays one egg per year, and it takes at least 54 days after egg-laying to successfully raise a chick to fledging. This species is known for its poor ability to produce chicks that survive to maturity, probably a result of the modern threats it faces.

LIFE CYCLE: The bird’s age at first breeding is probably two to four years; its lifespan is unknown.

FEEDING: The summer diet of the Kittlitz's murrelet consists of forage fish, including capelin, Pacific sandlace, and Pacific herring, as well as macrozooplankton. The bird’s winter diet is almost completely unknown.

THREATS: Murrelets are threatened by global warming, oil spills, bycatch in commercial gillnet fisheries, disturbance by vessels, increased nest predation, and changing food resources.

POPULATION TREND: Surveys conducted in areas containing the majority of Kittlitz’s murrelet numbers in Alaska show that populations have declined by 80 to 90 percent or more during the last 20 years.

 

Photo by Glen Tepke, FPWC