Maine’s First State Record of Ancient Murrelet: How it’s vagrancy could be a warning Climate Change

JUN 20, 2016    by KEENAN YAKOLA

Ancient Murrelet. Photo: Keenan Yakola

During the summer I am beyond fortunate to be one of the research supervisors on Seal Island NWR (restricted access). In addition, I recently finished my first semester as a Master’s Fellow with the Northeast Climate Science Center at UMass Amherst. SINWR is one of the study sites for my thesis focusing on shifts in the phenology of Sterna sp. of terns as well as their prey in the Gulf of Maine. These species include the Arctic, Common and the federally listed Roseate Tern. While conducting our research on these coastal islands I have learned to always keep my eyes peeled for other seasonal phenomenon such as the blooming of plants, bird migration, the movement of local fish schools and the changing sea surface temperature. It’s hard to ignore thinking about how climate change may be affecting everything on the island in some way or form. This year I was lucky enough to witness something truly rare in my observations. So rare, in fact, that explaining it is proving to be a worthy challenge!

SINWR is located 22 miles from Rockland, Maine and is managed by the National Audubon Seabird Restoration Program, aka Project Puffin. It is home to large breeding colonial nesting seabirds including Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill, Black Guillemot, Arctic and Common Terns, Herring and Black-backed Gulls, as well as Great and Double-crested Cormorants. It has also hosted a summer resident Red-billed Tropicbird for many years. Seemingly, every year it’s unique location attracts a rarity or two.

On Friday, May 13th a friend, local boat captain, and guru on the natural history of the Gulf of Maine was dropping off some equipment and got the chance to enjoy the birds of the island for the day. He was scoping one of the Razorbill rafts just offshore in one of the large coves on the west side of the island when he spotted a small alcid amongst its otherwise gigantic companions. He first picked it up in flight and thought about the possibility of it being the Dovekie—the smallest alcid in the Atlantic. This idea was quickly dismissed when the birds landed and he could see the prominent features of this mystery bird with a beautiful slate gray back, stunning white eyebrow and dainty little bill.

I was busy doing some work on the other end of the island when he returned and told me had just seen a small alcid that he was not familiar with. This was surprising as John is an experienced observer with an exceptional knowledge regarding seabirds in the NW Atlantic. He suspected that it was one of the small Pacific alcids so I quickly grabbed Sibley for him and turned the pages to the murrelets. He flipped the page past Marbled Murrelet and then laid his finger on the book without saying a single word. I was out the door.

Grabbing one of my co-workers, a scope, binoculars, and camera, we sprinted across the boulders and finally reached the spot John had specified. Scanning the rafts of Razorbills, I picked out the small alcid, and indeed it was an Ancient Murrelet! It was floating close to shore, associating with a small flock of Razorbills, which seemed to at least be tolerating this wee stranger. When the group took flight it was close in tow while they whirled around, making a few passes before the murrelet split off and landed on the open water about a mile off the island. Unfortunately, searching by both land and by sea we never turned up the bird again that day.

Ancient Murrelet with it’s Atlantic relative, Razorbills. Photograph by Keenan Yakola.

Ancient Murrelets are a truly fascinating small alcid of the Pacific Northwest. They nest on coastal island slopes from British Columbia, to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. They burrow under rocks, tree roots, and logs before laying either one or two eggs. The real behavioral twist that makes Ancient Murrelets unique amongst alcids is that the males will come ashore at night and often use perches such as tree branches to sing! Soon after eggs hatch the parents will call their chicks to see and raise their fluffy progeny entirely at sea.

I recently saw my first Ancient Murrelet while birding in Port Townsend, Washington, but I would have never guessed that I would see one at my summer home on Seal Island NWR in Maine (I guess I could have said the same thing about the Yellow-billed Loon that showed up in January in my home town on Cape Cod, MA though!,). A number of vagrant Ancient Murrelet records have been accepted in the northeastern United States including sightings from New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and now Maine. What makes this sighting really stand out as unusual is that it is was in the spring. Almost all other Ancient Murrelet sightings have been detected in the fall and early winter. The only other eastern records during the spring (March through May) include a single sighting in Wisconsin and another in Vermont.

What makes Maine’s first accepted Ancient Murrelet record even more fascinating is that it is currently touring Maine’s coastal seabird colonies by island hopping (assuming this is in fact the same bird). As previously mentioned it was first seen on Seal Island NWR on May 13th, then on May 22nd it was seen again on Petit Manan NWR just north of SINWR, and again on the 27th off Machais Seal Island at the boundary of the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy. I somewhat assumed that this bird would continue north trying to find it way home, but on June 1st it headed south again to Petit Manan NWR! I am personally really looking forward to seeing how long this bird continues its tour and where it may end up next. Of course I’m hoping that it drops by Seal Island NWR for another visit!

Now that I have given you a quick overview of this bird lets really think about how far away from home this bird is. Pretty much the whole population of Ancient Murrelets nesting in North America spend their time on the coast from California (Winter only) through Alaska to the Aleutian Islands. This bird is at least 2500 miles from its normal range! So, how and why exactly did this bird make its epic trek? I certainly have some thoughts but, I do have to say that we we will never really know exactly how this bird arrived in the Gulf of Maine.

Ancient Murrelets have had quite a history of inland wandering. If you check out an eBird Map of Ancient Murrelet sightings you will see exactly that. A couple of short publications during the 1960s tried to explain this “inland wandering phenomena” using correlations between poor weather conditions prior to when these rare inland sightings of Ancient Murrelets occurred (1 &2). They also stated that inland sightings were most likely during the fall when birds nesting high in the Pacific Northwest made their migration southeast thus, giving the birds the potential to be blown off course and further inland.

Image provided by eBird. Created 6/18/2016

I personally think this makes a lot of sense for birds that are sighted inland anywhere west of the Rockies but, trying to explain records further east and during the spring is a bit more complicated. We currently do not know how these vagrant Ancient Murrelets adapt to life on fresh water lakes which they could theoretically use as stopover sites on an eastward excursion. If we knew that they were able to do this and regain strength during their journeys, then perhaps the “blown off course” theory would make me feel a little better about accepting a cross continental flight (again, this is 2500 miles we are talking about!).

A second, albeit less likely, vagrancy route for this Ancient Murrelet was for it to travel through the opening Arctic ocean routes in the north. This year Arctic Sea Ice Extent is at a record low.

 Image provided by Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis and retrieved 6/18/2016.

With a higher rate of melting this year and less ice it simply means that more routes for seabirds and other marine life will open allowing for an increased ability to move between the two oceans. In addition, an oceanic route through the Arctic would also eliminate any question of an ability to feed on fresh water lakes as this would allow the Ancient Murrelet (as well as other vagrant seabirds) the ability to feed while making their trek. If I had to recommend any further reading concerning this post a recent paper titled “Melting barriers to faunal exchange across ocean basins” would certainly be it! The most relevant portion of this paper discusses how we are seeing an increased number of vagrant seabird sightings in the “wrong ocean”. Although it is probably more likely that the murrelet took a cross-continental flight to get to the Gulf of Maine I don’t believe that we can simply discount this possibility! No matter the route that this bird took it has certainly got me thinking about the melting Arctic sea ice and how this major change will influence both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. 

There are so many questions that I have concerning this bird that go beyond what I could even begin to describe in this post. Such as how was it effected by the El Niño conditions? How are the population of it primary prey (krill) responding to climate change? What will the productivity of the Ancient Murrelet population be this summer?

What my gut is telling me is that sightings of Pacific birds in the Atlantic are just going to increase. I was so excited when I first saw this bird swimming with it’s new Atlantic companions but, now I am looking at it as more of an omen. It was simply a reminder that the research being conducted by climate scientists is more important than ever. 


Keenan Yakola is a Master’s Fellow with the Northeast Climate Science Center. 


Some References and Further Reading:

  1. Mckeon et al. 2016. Melting barriers to faunal exchange across ocean basins. Glob Change Biol Global Change Biology, 22(2), 465-473. doi:10.1111/gcb.13116
  2. Munyer, E. A. 1965. Inland Wanderings of the Ancient Murrelet. The Wilson Bulletin, 77(3), 235-2432.
  3. Sullivan, B.L., C.L. Wood, M.J. Iliff, R.E. Bonney, D. Fink, and S. Kelling. 2009. eBird: a citizen-based bird observation network in the biological sciences. Biological Conservation 142: 2282-2292.
  4. “Wanderings of the Ancient Murrelet: Some Additional Comments.” The Condor 68.5 (1966): 510-11.

If you are at all interested in visiting the waters off Seal Island NWR (the island itself is closed to the public) there are three options:

  1. John Drury’s Boat Tours aboard the Skua
  2. Old Quarry Ocean Adventure aboard the Nigh Duck
  3. Isle au Haut Boat Services aboard the Mink

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