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Kittlitz's Murrelet

Brachyramphus brevirostris

The Kittlitz's murrelet, a name honoring the German zoologist Heinrich von Kittlitz, is a diminutive member of the auk family. This bird, measuring a mere 25 cm in length, is characterized by its compact form, short legs, and during the breeding season, a cryptic plumage that blends seamlessly with its mountainous nesting grounds. The breeding plumage is a muted greyish-brown, an adaptation to its habitat near snowfields. In contrast, its winter attire is the classic black and white seen in many seabirds, and it sports a bill notably smaller than that of its relative, the marbled murrelet.

Identification Tips

When attempting to identify the Kittlitz's murrelet, look for its small stature. During breeding season, its greyish-brown feathers provide camouflage against the bare ground and snow, while in winter, it dons a more striking black and white plumage. The bird's bill is also a useful identification feature, being smaller than that of the similar marbled murrelet.

Habitat

The Kittlitz's murrelet selects rather unique nesting sites compared to other seabirds. Eschewing colonial nesting habits, it opts for isolated locations atop mountains, often on south-facing slopes with bare ground adjacent to snowfields.

Distribution

This species is primarily found in the coastal regions of Alaska, including Prince William Sound, the Kenai Peninsula, sparsely along the west coast, and throughout the Aleutian Islands. Its range extends to Eastern Siberia and possibly to Wrangel Island.

Behaviour

The Kittlitz's murrelet is a solitary nester, preferring the lofty heights above the treeline for its breeding grounds. It is known to feed close to shore, particularly around tidewater glaciers, dining on larval fish, krill, and other small zooplankton. Parents are diligent in feeding their chicks with slightly larger fish. The chicks, which retain their downy feathers longer than most birds due to the exposed nature of their nesting sites, are believed to make their maiden flight to the sea without further parental assistance.

Breeding

A single egg is the norm for this species, with the incubation period remaining a mystery. The chicks are nurtured throughout the day and reach fledging weight in approximately 25 days. Remarkably, they shed their down just 12 hours before fledging, a testament to their resilience in the face of the elements.

Similar Species

The marbled murrelet is the species most similar to the Kittlitz's murrelet, with the key differentiator being the smaller bill size of the Kittlitz's murrelet.

Diet and Feeding

Kittlitz's murrelets sustain themselves on a diet of larval fish, krill, and other zooplankton, foraging close to the shore. The chicks are provided with slightly larger fish, which are carried in the bill by the parents.

Conservation status

The Kittlitz's murrelet was once considered critically endangered but has since been downlisted to near threatened by the IUCN. This change reflects a less rapid rate of decline than previously thought, with some populations showing signs of stabilization or slight recovery. The species faces threats from global warming, which affects its glacier-dependent habitat, as well as disturbances from boats and the risk of oil spills. Notably, the Exxon Valdez oil spill had a significant impact, resulting in the loss of an estimated 5–10% of the global population.

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Kittlitz's Murrelets on Birda

Sightings
A map showing the sighting location
🦃
Michael Thompson
16 Jul 2024 - 8:00pm
United States

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