Murrelet is a fascinating SE resident

Posted: Friday, August 19, 2005

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

One of the wonders of waiting on customers at my son's store on South Franklin is that you meet interesting people with a lot to relate.

Chris Millow came in a day or two ago to buy a card. He told me that he was from Ipswich, Mass., that he was a student at the University of Delaware at Newark, and that he was in Alaska to study the marbled murrelet as part of a National Science Foundation project.

Marbled murrelet. What a beautiful name that is. It is a little puff of a sea bird of only about 7 to 8 ounces in weight but prolific in the thousands in its Alaska habitat. Its numbers are threatened in its other natural homes from Northern California to British Columbia.

The marbled murrelet is a year-round Alaska resident. No long sojourns to Arizona or Mexico for him.

The murrelet feed on small fish like sand lance, capelin and juvenile herring. But the most unique biological feature distinguishing it from other sea birds is that it nests in the tall trees of our old-growth forest. It is attracted to the natural moss platforms on the high branches of these forest giants.

Most other sea birds nest in burrows or on rocky cliff sides in giant colonies. The murrelet nests individually. Chris said the male and female mate and stay together for at least the summer season, but perhaps for a longer period. They share incubation duties. Each attends the nest for 24 hours while the mate goes out to feed.

Matt Kirchhoff of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is in charge of the study program. It is carried on at Port Snetisham, where there is a spectacular abundance of sea birds. This is an important research project. In the 1950s, the marbled murrelet was called "the enigma bird of the Pacific" because so little was known about it.

Each day Chris and one other companion watch the murrelet with spotting scopes, counting the numbers coming into the bay and those going out. They count about 150,000 movements over the summer. This of course does not translate into 150,000 birds, but it gives a sense of the trend in numbers from year to year. Port Snetisham is the leading breeding site in Southeast Alaska.

There are now estimated to be 650,000 marbled murrelet in Southeast Alaska - by far the largest murrelet population in the world. To the north in Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet and the Aleutian Islands, a much smaller number is resident. To the south of us, from California to British Columbia, the bird is in decline.

One of the questions asked of Kirchhoff and his assistants is why Southeast Alaska is such a welcome home for the marbled murrelet. Their study is trying to supply some of the answers. Matt said that this year 32 birds were banded so that their flight path could be discovered, but this is a difficult process since you have to fly directly over the birds to get a signal.

At the end of the breeding cycle, the marbled murrelets leave Port Snetisham. The bird enters a molting period and loses the ability to fly. It is thought that flocks go out to the ocean perhaps to avoid predation.

Matt said another name given to the marbled murrelet was the "fog lark," because when first studied, they were often high in the giant redwoods surrounded by the wet fog of Northern California.

We can take a measure of pride to know that in Southeast Alaska we have the greatest concentration of "the enigma bird of the Pacific."

If ever there was an argument to preserve the old-growth forest, at least at Port Snetisham and other breeding sites, it is the marbled murrelet.

When I talked to Chris Millow on July 30, he had two more weeks to go before going back to college where he is a wildlife conservation major.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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