Kittlitz's murrelets (Brachyramphus brevirostris) and marbled murrelets (B. marmoratus) are small diving seabirds and are of management concern because of population declines in coastal Alaska. In 2006-08, we conducted a study in Kenai Fjords National Park, south-central Alaska, to estimate the recent population size of Brachyramphus murrelets, to evaluate productivity based on juvenile to adult ratios during the fledgling season, and to describe and compare their use of marine habitat. We also attempted a telemetry study to examine Kittlitz's murrelet nesting habitat requirements and at-sea movements. We estimated that the Kittlitz's murrelet population was 671 ? 144 birds, and the marbled murrelet population was 5,855 ? 1,163 birds. Kittlitz's murrelets were limited to the heads of three fjords with tidewater glaciers, whereas marbled murrelets were more widely distributed. Population estimates for both species were lower in 2007 than in 2006 and 2008, possibly because of anomalous oceanographic conditions that may have delayed breeding phenology. During late season surveys, we observed few hatch-year marbled murrelets and only a single hatch-year Kittlitz's murrelet over the course of the study. Using radio telemetry, we found a likely Kittlitz's murrelet breeding site on a mountainside bordering one of the fjords. We never observed radio-tagged Kittlitz's murrelets greater than 10 kilometer from their capture sites, suggesting that their foraging range during breeding is narrow. We observed differences in oceanography between fjords, reflecting differences in sill characteristics and orientation relative to oceanic influence. Acoustic biomass, a proxy for zooplankton and small schooling fish, generally decreased with distance from glaciers in Northwestern Lagoon, but was more variable in Aialik Bay where dense forage fish schools moved into glacial areas late in the summer. Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii), capelin (Mallotus villosus) and Pacific sand lance (Ammodytes hexapterus) were important forage species for murrelets in Kenai Fjords. Euphausiids also may have been an important forage resource for Kittlitz's murrelets in turbid glacial outflows in shallow waters during daytime. Marbled murrelets generally were more tolerant to a wider range of foraging habitat conditions although they tended to avoid the ice-covered silty waters close to glaciers. In contrast, Kittlitz's murrelets preferred areas where the influence of tidewater glaciers was the greatest and where their distribution was determined largely by prey availability. This work highlights an important link between interannual variability in murrelet counts at sea and mesoscale oceanographic conditions that influence marine productivity and prey distribution.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Kittlitz's and Marbled Murrelets in Kenai Fjords National Park, South-Central Alaska: At-Sea Distribution, Abundance, and Foraging Habitat, 2006-08