The Murrelet Mystery

Marbled and Kittlitz’s Murrelets are two cryptic, pocket-sized seabirds whose “plain” plumages belie fascinating natural histories.

Audubon in the Field

Marbled and Kittlitz’s Murrelets are two cryptic, pocket-sized seabirds whose “plain” plumages belie fascinating natural histories. On this page, read more about Kittlitz's and Marbled Murrelets, and scroll down to watch a video of Matt Kirchhoff lecturing on murrelet ecology in Southeast Alaska. Below that, read about Audubon's murrelet research in Glacier Bay, and find links to research reports and field journal entries from our volunteer crew.

Mystery Murrelets

The Marbled Murrelet is bird of seas and big trees, and it is the most abundant seabird in the inner waters of Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound. The Kittlitz’s Murrelet is a much rarer bird. Known as the “Glacier Murrelet” for its affinity for tidewater glaciers, Kittlitz’s numbers are densest in fjords with glacial influence, including Glacier Bay, Icy Bay, and Prince William Sound. But its ecology is more complex than that: it also nests in scattered locations with no glacial presence, including Kodiak, along the Northern Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea coast, and as far north as the Chukchi Sea.

Unlike the vast majority of seabirds, which nest in massive colonies of hundreds or thousands of birds, Kittlitz’s and Marbled Murrelets are solitary, secretive nesters. Marbled Murrelet nests were first documented in 1974, when a tree-trimmer discovered a nest perched high in a Douglas fir tree. The female Marbled Murrelet typically lays a single egg on mossy platforms directly on broad limbs of large, old-growth coniferous trees, though sometimes on the ground. Only a few dozen Kittlitz’s nests have ever been found, typically on bare rock, alpine talus slopes, or glacial till.

Both species are declining, and both are highlighted on Audubon’s Alaska WatchList. In the lower 48 states, the Marbled Murrelet has been reduced from historic population levels by loss of old-growth nesting habitat due to logging, and it listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Threats in Alaska include marine regime shifts that affect food supply, predation by avian predators, incidental by-catch in gillnet fisheries, and logging of old-growth habitat.

Kittlitz’s populations are also declining, with principle threats being oil spills, natural habitat change (at sea and on land), and mortality from avian predators, including eagles, falcons, and corvids. Indeed, the Kittlitz’s Murrelet is fast becoming the poster bird for global warming. Listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and named as one of the America's Top Ten Most Endangered Birds by the National Audubon Society, it is of highest conservation concern for many agencies and organizations. The species made headlines in April 2009 when the Palin Administration rejected a request to list it as a state endangered species, while the US Fish and Wildlife Service ruled in 2004 that the bird warranted protection under the federal Endangered Species Act but was “precluded” from listing by other agency priorities.

Watch Matt Kirchhoff, Director of Bird Conservation for Audubon Alaska, describe the unusual life history of Southeast Alaska's signature seabirds. In his presentation, recorded live from Juneau in fall 2009, Dr. Kirchhoff offers a peek into the murrelets' day-to-day life, both above and below the water's surface in Glacier Bay.

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Audubon's Research in Glacier Bay

One of the great murrelet hotspots in North America is Glacier Bay in Southeast Alaska. This spectacularly beautiful setting contains the single largest concentration of Kittlitz’s Murrelets in the world—an estimated 20 to 25 percent of the global population—and even greater numbers of Marbled Murrelets.

Historical surveys suggest steep declines (>80%) in murrelet numbers in Glacier Bay, but survey methods and locations shifted over the years, clouding the interpretation of population trends. How has glacial retreat in Glacier Bay affected murrelet populations and habitats? Could changing survey methods explain some of the population trends? Do Kittlitz’s and/or Marbled Murrelets tend to congregate near glaciers, and do they have different foraging patterns or prey capture success in colder, more turbid waters?

These are some of the questions that Audubon sought to answer—or begin to answer—in Glacier Bay in 2009. That summer Audubon Alaska led a field research team of 20 volunteers and biologists into Glacier Bay National Park in northern Southeast Alaska for 10 days to survey and observe Kittlitz’s and Marbled Murrelets. Audubon’s objectives were to observe feeding behavior, determine current populations, identify trends, and better understand the causes for the species’ apparent decline. Our goal was to create scientifically vigorous research to help guide management decisions, recovery plans, future research and funding, and effective conservation action.

The research crew members counted swimming and flying birds, mapped their distribution, and observed their feeding behavior, focusing on dive times and prey capture success in various locations and at different times. The teams camped each night and worked from kayak, zodiac, and boat.

Read more about the 2009 field season in the journal entries below.

Blue Mouse Cove by Julie Koehler
“It’s 1:00 in the afternoon and already my field partner and I have completed 8 hours of murrelet surveys.” CLICK HERE to read full account.

On board the MV Gravina, at anchor on the east side of Russell Island by John Lindell
“I lay quietly, listening. Keeer, keeer. keeer. The high piercing calls of marbled murrelets are unmistakable; lots of them, judging by the din, only slightly muted by the boats hull. Then,“PWHOOOSH”. Ah, that was it. My wake up call this morning is a nearby whale…sounds like very near.” CLICK HERE to read full account.

On board the MV Sierra by Melanie Smith
“Two sleek black isosceles triangles broke the surface—orcas less than 100 meters from the boat. We watched in awe while at the same time scrambling for cameras, and a few footprints later they were out of sight.” CLICK HERE to read full account.

Wachusett Inlet by Jim Fowler
“During breakfast a young brown bear suddenly popped up on the elevated rock slab we called camp. It casually strolled and sniffed our kitchen (one pot on a single burner stove surrounded by bear barrels), stuffed its snout in the Cream of Wheat coated pot balanced on the stove, rejected it without upsetting the pot, and strolled on.” CLICK HERE to read full account.

On board the Alaskan Star by John & Mary Beth Schoen
“Listening to wolves howl and watching a black bear on shore in the late evening from our anchorage at North Sandy Cove.” CLICK HERE to read full account.


The biggest surprise of the summer was the relatively high numbers of Kittlitz’s Murrelets. Audubon’s surveys indicate a population of over 5,000 Kittlitz’s Murrelets, which is the second highest population ever recorded in Glacier Bay. In fact, the results of Audubon’s survey suggest that populations of both Kittlitz’s and Marbled Murrelets have been unchanged since 1993.

We would be more confident of the populations’ stability in Glacier Bay if we had more years of comparably collected data. More research will be needed to understand how populations are changing in response to this shifting landscape. This will involve ongoing survey work, as well as studies to identify where birds are nesting and foraging and the success they are finding. Audubon Alaska hopes to play a role in that work in the future and is planning to return to Glacier Bay for more work in 2010, in cooperation with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Certainly the glacial retreat in Glacier Bay has thus far created habitat for Kittlitz’s Murrelets. However, too much melting and glacial retreat may be a bad thing. As former tidewater glaciers retreat back onto land, glacial calving will stop, and further retreat will slow dramatically. Less new nesting habitat will be exposed, and mosses, shrubs, and eventually trees will take over the exposed land. That may be a positive change for the tree-nesting Marbled Murrelet, but it is not necessarily a good change for the less numerous Kittlitz’s Murrelet. Kittlitz’s Murrelets appear to be doing well in Glacier Bay for now, but their long-term future is not secure.

Audubon will continue to call attention to both of these vulnerable species and advocate for science-based conservation measures.

This research was made possible through the generous support of The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s State Wildlife Grant program, the Helen Clay Frick Foundation, the Leighty Foundation, Juneau Audubon Society, and several generous individual donors.

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