Rare Birds Sighted near Lake Aleknagik

Jul 11, 2014

Two species of rare bird have been spotted in the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge and have made their way to Lake Aleknagik.  KDLG’s Chase Cavanaugh has more on the creatures and the efforts to study them.

The Togiak National Wildlife Refuge reports that two species of endangered bird have been spotted around Lake Aleknagik.  The Kittlitz’s and Marbled Murrelets are small, grayish birds, typically around 10 inches long.  They feed off small marine life. The Kittlitz’s eats plankton, krill, and larval fish, while the Marbled Murrellet eats larger fish such as herring.  Rachel Ruden is a summer Research Fellow at Togiak National Wildlife Refuge.  She says while these birds make their home in Alaska, it’s rare to find them in a freshwater environment.

“So these birds are found in the Bering and Chukchi Seas.  That’s where they traditionally inhabit and they breed in either the Russian Far East or Alaska, so it’s really unusual that they’re on these freshwater lakes created by glaciers in the past.  It’s not documented in the literature.  We know that there’s sightings from around Dillingham, but there’s no robust research indicating why they’re here.”

Kittlitz’s Murrelets nest along mountain cliffs while the Marbled variety make their home in the trees.  A 2013 survey at Lake Aleknagik counted 26 individual birds, but it was only preliminary.  Ruden says she and other Togiak researchers are preparing a survey of their own.

“We’re gonna have boats, which will carry crews of 3.  2 people will be spotting the birds, and once they’re spotted we’ll have somebody estimating the distance from the boat, and gathering all these different measurements so we can get an estimate of the population density on each lake.  Other thing we’ll be looking for include the presence of hatch-year birds, which means chicks that have succeeded in reaching the water, have fledged the nest, and will hopefully join the population as adults.”

Ruden begins her survey this week, and will delve deeper into studying these birds over the summer.  She says while murrelets may seem unremarkable, their mystery only increases their appeal.

“People know these birds are on the lakes, but they might not realize how significant it is based on the birds’ ecology and also the fact they’re so endangered.  You might not appreciate it when you see these tiny birds that are kinda funny looking.  They’re really important to the ecosystem and we hope to find out some good things.”  

Both birds are classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, with the Kittlittz’s considered critically endangered.  However, there is currently insufficient data to put the Kittlitz’s on the Endangered Species List.