Troubled Birds

Some Southeast Alaska species highlighted on new Audubon Watch List

Posted: Sunday, December 18, 2005

A small bird that swims and feeds like a penguin in the icy water around glaciers is taking a dangerous nosedive in coastal Alaska.

The bird, called the Kittlitz's murrelet, could disappear from Glacier Bay and Prince William Sound in a couple of decades. That's if the murrelet's current population trend doesn't improve, federal scientists say.

Climate change, which has triggered glacial retreat and drastic ocean warming, is a strong suspect for the decline of the bird, which feeds on small fish and crustaceans.

"So goes the ice, so goes the bird," said John Piatt, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Alaska Science Center in Seattle.

The Kittlitz's murrelet is a candidate species for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. It also is one of 52 birds targeted by Alaska Audubon on its new Watch List of troubled birds, which has been revised for the first time since its initial publication in 2002.

At least 20 percent of the birds on Audubon's list nest or migrate through Alaska's coastal rain forest and sheltered bays, according to Audubon staff.

Some of their woes are not centered in Alaska but are global in nature, said Iain Stenhouse, director of bird conservation for Alaska Audubon in Anchorage.

Due to climate change and the rapid urbanization of coastal regions, "most shorebird species are under threat ... it follows through to waterfowl," Stenhouse said.

"The handwriting is on the wall that climate is going to change the distribution and migration of birds around Alaska and the world," added Michelle Kissling, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Juneau.

Alaska Audubon staff created its list by scrutinizing scientific studies and government reports and consulting with scientists who study the birds.

Some of the notable species on Audubon's list for Southeast Alaska include Kittlitz's and marbled murrelets, Queen Charlotte goshawks, olive-sided flycatchers and short-eared owls.

Audubon Alaska bird-watch list

Red-throated loon **

Yellow-billed loon *

Short-tailed albatross

Red-faced cormorant

Trumpeter swan **

Greater white-fronted goose*

Emperor goose

Canada goose (Dusky) **


Green-winged teal

Common eider

King eider

Spectacled eider

Steller's eider

Black scoter *

Long-tailed duck *

Golden eagle

Northern goshawk (Queen Charlotte) **


Peregrine falcon *

Spruce grouse **

Rock ptarmigan (Aleutian)

American golden-plover

Pacific golden-plover

Black oystercatcher **

Wandering tattler *

Solitary sandpiper


Bristle-thighed curlew

Marbled godwit

Bar-tailed godwit

Hudsonian godwit

Ruddy turnstone

Black turnstone *

Surfbird *

Rock sandpiper (Pribilof) *

Red knot


Dunlin *

Buff-breasted sandpiper

Red-legged kittiwake

Aleutian tern *

Marbled murrelet **

Kittlitz's murrelet **

Whiskered auklet

Short-eared owl *

Olive-sided flycatcher *

Blackpoll warbler

Song sparrow (Aleutian)

Smith's longspur

McKay's bunting

Rusty blackbird *

** Nests in Southeast/Southcentral Alaska rainforest

* Winters or migrates through Southeast/Southcentral rainforest

Note: Other birds on this list may be present in the temperate rainforest but appear to be less naturally abundant.

In particular, the two species of murrelet and the Queen Charlotte goshawk have been plagued by biological and legal concerns in recent years.

Worried about its possible extinction, environmentalists asked federal officials in 2001 to list the Kittlitz's murrelet under the Endangered Species Act. Federal scientists are busy studying the bird, which is listed as a candidate for the endangered list.

In lawsuits, environmental groups also have targeted the goshawk for listing. A subspecies of the northern goshawk, the Queen Charlotte goshawk is considered a key predator in the Tongass National Forest. It is highly sensitive to clear-cut logging because it can only nest or hunt in mature forests with adequate open space.

Last week, in response to a federal court order, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced its intent to review the goshawk's status throughout its range in British Columbia and Alaska.

However, "It's hard to get concerned about over-logging on the Tongass, the way things are going right now," said Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association, based in Ketchikan. He noted the decline of large-scale logging in the forest in recent years.

Graham argues that goshawks are adequately protected. About one-third of commercial grade old-growth timber is off-limits to logging, he said.

However, one murrelet species abundant in Southeast Alaska's forest - the marbled murrelet - is doing very poorly elsewhere.

A secretive bird that nests in the forest's oldest and largest moss-laden trees, the marbled murrelet has been nearly eliminated from the Pacific Northwest due to habitat destruction in the redwood forest. In 1992, authorities listed the bird on the federal Endangered Species Act list in California, Oregon and Washington.

The Bush administration has announced plans to delist the marbled murrelet, claiming that the nonmigratory species form a continuous population from California to Alaska.

The core of the marbled murrelet's range is in Southeast Alaska.

Delisting the bird in the Lower 48 because of its apparent healthy numbers in Southeast Alaska is "pretty controversial. ... I don't think the argument is scientifically credible," Stenhouse said. "I think they (the administration) are trying to use this as a test case, and then see if they can (do) this with other species as well."

An estimated 680,000 marbled murrelets live in the Panhandle, though that figure was extrapolated from a small sample count in the mid-1990s. The actual total could be 200,000 more or less than that, said Matt Kirchhoff, a biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Even though they appear to be abundant in Southeast Alaska, the marbled murrelet is critical to watch as an indicator species for old-growth habitat values and marine richness, Kirchhoff said.

The marbled murrelet could soon become a critical issue in Alaska because of the proposed delisting in the Lower 48, federal scientists said last week.

The struggles of some other bird species listed for Southeast Alaska appear to be on a more universal scale.

Short-eared owls and olive-sided flycatchers, for example, are declining throughout their range in the United States, Stenhouse said.

Audubon Alaska listed the owl because it is declining across the entire North American continent.

"It has fallen through the cracks," Stenhouse said. "It's an appropriate time to bring it forward."

In Southeast Alaska, the drying of wetlands and post-glacial uplift "is really starting to change the distribution and abundance" of both birds, which prefer wetland habitat, said Kissling, with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

In addition, the olive-sided flycatcher is a good example of an Alaska species having trouble in its wintering grounds, Kissling added.

Due to increased coffee production in South and Central American cloud forests, the birds are getting shut out of some of their traditional winter habitat, she said.

Alaskans interested in helping the flycatchers should consider purchasing coffee harvested from plantations that maintain a tree canopy as bird habitat, she said. The coffee is labeled as "shade-grown."

"It's a small thing that people can do to protect the birds that are here in Alaska," Kissling said.

For additional information or a copy of the 2005 Audubon Alaska Watch List, call the state Audubon office at (907) 276-7034 or send an e-mail to

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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