By Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter
Winter isn’t typically a busy time for bird-watching on the Kenai Peninsula, but unusual sightings have put birdwatchers on alert. Common murres are making uncommon appearances around Alaska. The seabirds are showing up inland and in poor condition.
“I got three over the weekend, spread throughout the Beaver Loop area, all at different houses, all thin and not very strong. I lost one, but I’m feeding the other two, trying to get them stronger,” said Marianne Clark, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
The medium-size birds with black heads and backs and white bellies, look like a cross between a loon and a penguin. They have long, thin beaks for feeding on fish in the saltwater where they typically spend their winters. But this year, they’re showing up inland.
“We don’t know a lot at this point, just that there is an influx of them coming in. We took in 20 from Oct. 31 through Nov. 12,” said Katie Middlebrook, an avian rehabilitation coordinator at the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage.
“Most have come in from Anchorage, Wasilla, Palmer, even one as far as Talkeetna — strange places for murres. You’d usually see them washing ashore in Homer and Seward,” Middlebrook added.
And they have there, as well.
“The Alaska SeaLife Center has received about 25 common murres over the past two weeks, all from the local Seward area. Most of the birds have been found inland, which is not where you would expect to find this type of seabird,” said Tara Riemer, president and CEO of the Alaska SeaLife Center.
Riemer said that the birds have been thin but alert, so after feeding and rehabbing them back to full strength, the center has released several of the birds in appropriate waters nearby.
“We have been doing a brief exam on the birds, but no necropsies. Some of the birds have been screened for avian influenza, but laboratory results will not be available for some time,” she said.
Riemer said that murre numbers are still high.
“Even so, we are keeping in touch with regional and national U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey staff to share observations,” she said.
Dr. Kathy Kuletz, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, said that this problem is more widespread than just Southcentral Alaska.
“It’s actually much more extensive. Since spring, and throughout summer and fall, seabird mortality events — mainly common murres — have been recorded throughout the northern Gulf of Alaska, including beaches on the Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak, Homer, Kenai Fjords, Seward, Prince William Sound and the Kayak Island (south of the sound),” she said.
Kuletz added that dead murres also have been seen offshore during surveys in the Bering Sea.
“Numbers on any one beach have ranged from a dozen to a couple hundred. Because of scavengers, bald eagles and large tidal activity, sick or dead birds don’t last long on a beach, so events can occur and disappear before anyone sees the birds. This makes it hard to estimate the full extent of mortality. Especially in Alaska, we have lots of coastline with relatively little of it frequented on a regular basis by people,” she said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has seen even more birds than the SeaLife Center and Bird TLC combined.
“To date we’ve sent 85 carcasses, mostly murres, to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, for necropsies and tests for disease or toxins,” Kuletz said, adding that the findings showed nearly all the dead birds were emaciated, indicating starvation. Only one bird, a tufted puffin, tested positive for a neurotoxin associated with paralytic shellfish poisoning.
Kuletz said that the mortalities are likely related to something affecting the birds’ food supply.
“Though, we don’t know if it’s changes in prey distribution or abundance. Unusually warm ocean waters that started last summer have continued to break records through this summer and fall. Predictions are for continued warm water through this winter,” she said.
Kuletz added that seabird die-offs have occurred during, or following, previous El Nino years, particularly in 1993, 1997-98 and 2004-05, and that seabird die-offs typically occur in late winter to early spring, as winter can be a difficult time for marine birds.
“What made this year unusual is that higher than ‘normal’ mortality, especially for murres, occurred throughout summer and fall. Because birds may be going into winter already compromised — not enough fat — we are anticipating that this winter/spring could be particularly bad, with even higher seabird mortality,” she said.
As a result, Fish and Wildlife Service offices and refuges are networking with USGS National Wildlife Health Center, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Alaska Department of Fish and Game and citizen scientists to prepare for monitoring and testing birds should there be continued or increased mortality of seabirds along Alaska’s shores.
Kuletz said that there are several options if people find stranded murres. Live birds can be reported to TLC or the SeaLife Center. Both groups have been able to rehab murres and release them. Sightings of sick or dead birds can be reported to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hotline at 866-527-3358 or the Fish and Game veterinarian at 907-328-8354, or submitted online at DFG.DWC.VET@alaska.gov.
The SeaLife Center’s Stranding Hotline is 888-774-7325. Marianne Clark can be reached at 907-298-3979.
Live murres can peck and bite, so should be handled with care, preferably while wearing gloves. They should not be held near the face for any reason. Dead birds can be left where they are to let nature takes its course.