The Amazing Ancient Murrelet
by Roy Beckemeyer
There is something very special about the birds that live most of their lives at sea – the penguins, albatrosses, petrels. But near the top of my list of favorite birds are the alcids or auks. These birds of the northern seas are the ecological equivalent of the southern hemisphere penguins, and are fat birds capable of diving and swimming after prey in cold water. Alcids have the added advantage that they can fly as well as swim. Included in the group are auks, murres, puffins, auklets, and murrelets. And my favorite alcid is the little Ancient Murrelet (Scientific name Synthliboramphus antiques).
The bird got its sobriquet “Ancient” from the specific name, “antiques.” The specific epithet appears to have its origin in the Russian folk name for the bird, “Starik” (which means “old man”), which is based on its appearance. One of the first western authors to describe these birds was Thomas Pennant, in 1784, who wrote “white, long, loose and very narrow feathers…which give it an aged look.” (These feathers occur on the side and back of the head of the adults.)
Ancient Murrelets are distributed along the Asian and American coasts of the North Pacific, from Japan, Korea and the Kurils north to Kamchatka, across the Aleutian island chain to Alaska, south along the coast to Washington State. Some of the largest breeding colonies for these birds are on the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia.
Adults weigh around half a pound, and live nearly their entire lives at sea, usually out of sight of land. They are on land only during the breeding season. In the Queen Charlottes, this is April through June. They nest in colonies on conifer-forested slopes of islands within 400 meters or so of the water, digging burrows several feet long at the bases of large trees under the roots, or under grass tussocks. They typically incubate two eggs for about a month, taking two to four day shifts. The adults are active above ground in their colonies only when it is nearly completely dark. The males sing from tree branches or other perches at night in the nesting colonies.
The baby Ancient Murrelets are precocial, that is, they are covered with down and able to walk almost immediately after hatching. The adults do not feed them in the nest, and the young leave their burrows when they are from one to four days old. The adults fly to the water at night, while the young (they weigh only about one ounce!) walk to the shore. The adults swim just offshore, calling to the young; they have individually distinctive calls, and the young rendezvous with the adults by recognizing their calls. Once they reach the sea, the family groups travel nonstop out to sea for about 18 hours, travelling to offshore feeding areas. The youngsters can swim and dive immediately on reaching the sea. The parents feed the young birds for about a month, and the young fledge at sea at six weeks or so of age.
Back in the early 1990’s, I went salmon fishing off the Queen Charlottes several times, and saw both Cassin’s Auklets and Ancient Murrelets in those waters. The picture posted here, however, is one I took on a boat trip my wife and I took across the Bering Sea from Kamchatka up through the Aleutians to Nome in 2006. It was taken off Little Tanaga Island in the Aleutians. I like the way the small bird looks so vulnerable, and yet so comfortable, bobbing in the cold green water. Amazing birds, these tiny sparks of life scattered over the surface of the vast and heartless northern sea.
– Roy Beckemeyer
There is a marvelous book summarizing what is known of this bird: “The Ancient Murrelet: A Natural History in the Queen Charlotte Islands,” by Anthony J. Gaston, 1992, T & AD Poyser, London.