Murrelet mystery: Seabirds hit the slopes and no one knows why

Early risers can hear the call of the birds flying up Eaglecrest; their destination unknown

Posted: Sunday, December 10, 2006

When most people are just waking up for work, Kristen Romanoff is usually out skiing. Two or three times a week, she and several friends hike up to Eaglecrest ski area for some telemarking, their way illuminated by moonlight and the narrow beam of their headlamps.

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This winter, they've had unusual company.

In the hour before sunrise they've been hearing the "keer" call of marbled murrelets - scores of them - flying up Fish Creek Valley and Eaglecrest ski area.

While their destination remains a mystery, it's probably not the Ptarmigan chair lift.

Another mystery is why there are so many of them around Juneau. In the Lower 48 and in Canada, they're classified as a threatened species.

And there's more to the puzzle: Marbled murrelets are seabirds.

Seabirds are supposed to spend their lives on the water, coming ashore only to nest, and then only in summer.

Whereas other seabirds nest on cliffs or in burrows, marbled murrelets typically fly miles inland, looking for a suitable moss platform in the bough of an old-growth tree.

Their nesting habits have posed one of the longest-running questions in the bird world. The first unquestioned nest was found in a tree in California in 1974.

Now it appears we're on the cusp of determining their aprs-ski habits as well.

Gus van Vliet, a Juneau birder who has long been monitoring marbled murrelets, says this odd winter behavior has been known for a while, and in fact is fairly common in Southeast Alaska.

Anyone with the perseverance to get up before dawn in winter and find the right position is likely to hear them. Perseverance Trail, appropriately enough, is another dependable location.

Van Vliet introduced me to someone who has quite possibly heard more marbled murrelets in winter than anyone else: Jim Fowler.

He's a local artist, a busy family man, and a guy with a serious murrelet habit. By serious, I mean he drove to Eaglecrest to listen for marbled murrelets before work (at 3 a.m. to 4 a.m. in the summer), one day a week, 40 to 45 weeks a year, for three years!

When asked why, Van Vliet, in typical low-key style, said, "I just enjoyed starting my day early."

However, the unique data he voluntarily gathered over those three years contributed to a scientific publication on the unusual behavior of these birds.

During this early winter's cold snap, with temperatures hovering around zero, he was back at it again.

Halfway up Eaglecrest Road, his truck pulled tight against a snow bank, Jim held a penlight with his mouth and scribbled rapidly as Julie Koehler (a new recruit to winter murrelet watching) called out the birds.

In 30 minutes they tallied 119 marbled murrelets, each heading somewhere up the snowbound valley. Questions about where they end up, what they do when they get there, and why, are complete unknowns.

In the last decade, millions of dollars have been spent studying marbled murrelets in the Lower 48 and Canada. In those places they are declining in number as the old trees they depend on disappear.

In Alaska, particularly near Juneau, the species is unusually abundant, and scientists would like to know exactly why.

It's nice that while most of Juneau sleeps, a few hardy volunteers are working to answer that question, one cold morning at a time.

• Matt Kirchhoff, a member of Juneau Audubon and a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, invites anyone interested in experiencing early-morning murrelet watching to give him a call at 465-4328.

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