The Kittlitz’s Murrelet is a mysterious bird of Beringia. In North America, it is known to breed almost entirely within Alaska, particularly in glaciated areas from Glacier Bay to the Alaska Peninsula. Smaller populations also breed in the Aleutian Islands, western Alaska, and the Russian Far East. A few nest in the nearby Yukon Territory and probably in northwestern British Columbia, although the latter has not been confirmed. This is the only alcid that nests primarily on the ground at or near the tops of mountains, particularly near glaciers and in previously glaciated areas, where its cryptic plumage helps it avoid detection. In areas that are glaciated, it forages near tidewater glaciers and outflows of glacial streams.
Kittlitz’s Murrelet nests primarily in unvegetated scree fields and in cliff faces or on open tundra with mosses, lichens, and/or short grasses. They lay a single egg in a small scrape, usually on the downhill side of a large rock. After an incubation period of about 30 days, the egg hatches into a small, downy young that is colored much the same as the surrounding rocky hillside. The fledging period is about 26 d on average. After fledging into the ocean, the young birds presumably are abandoned by their parents and learn to feed on their own. After breeding, most Kittlitz’s Murrelets leave the mostly protected waters where they are found during the summer months to winter everywhere from protected bays to the open ocean and leads within pack ice; however, essentially all aspects of wintering ecology are unknown. In fact, many aspects of the biology of this species remain unknown or are poorly known at best.
The species’ general rarity and patchy distribution and questions about its population trends all have heightened concern about its future. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service evaluated Kittlitz’s Murrelet for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), although ultimately determined in 2013 that listing was not warranted. It also is listed in the Red Book of the Russian Federation, and collection of birds there is allowed only by special permit. Threats to its persistence are thought to include global warming, oil spills, bycatch during gill-net fishing for salmon, and possibly disturbance by boats in summer feeding areas near tidewater glaciers.
Because its abundance is so localized and its nesting habitat requirements so unusual, little has been published specifically on this species until recently, when many studies were initiated to fill information gaps prior to the ESA listing decision. The few key studies have involved primarily aspects of nesting habitat (e.g., Kishchinskii 1968, Day et al. 1983, Day 1995, Piatt et al. 1999, Kaler et al. 2009, Lawonn et al. 2011, Kissling and Lewis 2016, Felis et al. 2016), nesting phenology across the range (Day 1996), and at-sea habitat use and oceanographic relationships (Day et al. 2000, Day et al. 2003, Allyn et al. 2012, Stephensen et al. 2016). Recent research on population status and population trends across the species’ range has been summarized in a series of papers in the journal Marine Ornithology (Kissling 2011), and papers on breeding biology (Kaler et al. 2009, Kissling et al. 2015a, Schaefer 2014), demography (Kissling et al. 2015b) and feeding ecology (Hatch 2011, Lawonn 2012) now are becoming available.
This account follows the biogeographic regions for Alaska outlined in Kessel and Gibson 1978: Southeastern Alaska, Southcoastal Alaska, Southwestern Alaska, Western Alaska (sometimes split here between the southeastern Bering Sea and the more northerly Seward Peninsula–Chukchi Sea), and Northern Alaska. For description of these regions see Kessel and Gibson 1978.