Researchers stalk Kittlitz's murrelet in Icy Bay

Posted: Sunday, April 27, 2008

A strange little procession winds its way across a broad expanse of cobbles and small boulders.

Courtesy Of Nick Hatch
Courtesy Of Nick Hatch

Three people, each with a large backpack, have hiked two miles through this dead-looking landscape near the head of Icy Bay. They've crossed a couple of glacial streams, wading up their waists (or more), clad in their skivvies. Fully dressed again, and swearing at the mobs of marauding mosquitoes, they now turn up a very small stream channel and scramble up a rocky slope.

Reaching the crest of a small ridge, they drop their packs, lie flat on the rubble, and peer over the edge. They watch; they whisper to each other.

Are they nuts? They are not hunters, although a shotgun lies beside one of the packs. And no semi-sane mountaineer would approach Mount St. Elias by this route or behave in this odd way. They may, in fact, be a bit daft - they are part of a team of ultra-dedicated biologists who've come to Icy Bay from Juneau in search of the "mysterious bird of Beringia" known as Kittlitz's murrelet.

It takes three days for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research vessel Curlew to chug its way from Juneau with its load of fuel, food, and gear for the team, so some of the researchers fly to Yakutat, to be picked up there for the final leg of the trip to Icy Bay. The vessel provides living and laboratory quarters for the research team for about three weeks in May and June. It then returns to Juneau and the crew lives in a cabin ashore or sometimes camps far up the bay.

The three weeks during which the vessel is home to the team are devoted to trying to capture the elusive Kittlitz's murrelets. Every night, weather and ice permitting, this crew hunts the murrelets in order to put radio transmitters on them. Dodging icebergs, they hunt from inflatable rafts in teams of three: a driver and two spot-lighters, one of whom wields a dip net if a murrelet is spotted.

On a dark night, the spotlight readily picks out birds on the water, along with chunks of ice from a glacier at the head of the bay. A bird tends to hold still in the bright light, so the researchers can approach and try to scoop it up with the net. About 25-30 percent of capture attempts are successful and in two years the team has placed radios on nearly 50 birds.

Once captured, each murrelet is placed in a special holding container and ferried as quickly as possible back to the Curlew. There the research team takes blood and feather samples, measures wing and leg and body weight, and places an official aluminum band on a leg. They also affix a tiny radio transmitter to the back, with a slender aerial trailing out over the bird's short tail. The bird is then released back onto the water and the team resumes the hunt.

Male and female murrelets are impossible to distinguish by external features. The blood samples help identify the sexes and blood hormones also show if a female is carrying an egg.

The little radios, each lasting up to 60 days or so, allow the researchers to relocate each marked bird by flying over the bay in a Cessna 206 with a radio receiver. Each transmitter emits a signal at a specified frequency, and the aerial survey looks for each frequency in turn, until the bird is located.

By tracking each bird throughout the summer, the research

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