Normally found skimming the North Pacific, seabirds known as common murres are appearing inland in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and elsewhere in Southcentral Alaska, starving and unable to fly.
Reports of grounded murres have emerged from Moose Pass to north of Talkeetna, with many found this week in the Susitna Valley. The foot-tall black and white birds that resemble small penguins are showing up in odd places — on the shoulder of busy Knik-Goose Bay Road outside Wasilla, just off a sled dog trail in Willow, tucked up next to a house in Houston.
The influx of murres is inundating local wildlife rehabilitation centers.
On Wednesday alone, 20 murres arrived at the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage from Alaska WildBird Rehabilitation Center in Houston, where Susitna Valley residents are bringing grounded birds.
Hundreds of people shared social media posts about the bizarre murre sightings. One Valley resident posted a pathetic photo of a murre on its side in the snow on a Facebook group for Mat-Su lost and found pets with a comment: “This little fella is sitting in our driveway. I’m not sure what’s wrong with him but he can’t seem to fly away — he can waddle and that’s about it.”
Biologists speculate that intense storms this week are driving this latest burst of stranded murres. They say the seabirds may already be pushing away from the ocean in a desperate quest to find food.
“Many of these birds, they’re teetering on the edge,” said Robb Kaler, a seabird specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage. “When you’ve got 100 mph winds and you don’t have a lot of energy, you are kind of at the whim of the wind.”
This most recent wave of murre strandings is part of a broader seabird die-off in coastal Alaska first reported in March and part of a widespread seabird die-off up and down the Pacific coast, possibly due to shortages of squid, krill and little fish the birds usually eat.
Ocean warming is a potential culprit; the body of warm water in the Gulf of Alaska that formed last year and earned the moniker “The Blob” is now expected to join the warm ocean currents of what’s predicted to be an extreme El Nino cycle in 2016.
Bird TLC in Anchorage first started taking in “extremely emaciated” murres at the end of October, according to Katie Middlebrook, the center’s avian rehabilitation coordinator. Dirt and grit had eliminated the natural oily waterproof layer on their feathers that allows them to survive in frigid northern waters. Necropsies revealed birds with literally zero body fat, Middlebrook said. “These guys are out there, sadly enough, just starving.”
Those birds needed tube-feeding five times a day and dish soap wash-downs to clean them enough to restore waterproofing on their feathers, she said.
The birds coming in now are in somewhat better shape: not as emaciated, and with waterproofing more intact. Still, it’s highly unusual to see murres so far inland. And without water, the birds built for a life at sea can’t get off the ground.
The pelagic fish-eating birds are built for water takeoff and landing, so their legs are too short to get a running start on land, Kaler said. “I would say some of these birds are probably running into buildings or trees and falling to the ground.”
Some seem to be finding water. Snowmachiners spotted a fairly large flock on the Susitna River. A birder in Talkeetna saw a cluster diving for Dolly Varden or salmon at the confluence of the Chulitna and Talkeetna rivers, Kaler said.
“He reported seeing several dozens of murres foraging,” he said. “They’d fly up the river and drift down in the current.”
Bird TLC has taken in about 60 murres since the end of October and released 35. They may be saving the birds for a very uncertain fate.
The center planned to send recovered murres to Seward for release into Resurrection Bay but “a lot are showing up dead there,” Middlebrook said. Whittier was a release spot several months ago but now dead murres are being spotted on the beaches there too. Media reports describe similar die-offs in Kodiak, Sitka, Cold Bay and Homer.
For now, the best option seems to be setting the murres free at Point Woronzof or near Kincaid Park in Anchorage, Middlebrook said.
There is no one answer to what’s happening to the birds at sea.
“That’s a huge conversation I’ve had with our veterinarians. We’re putting all this stress on the birds, using all these resources. Are they really going to survive once they’re back out there?” she said. “The answer is, we really don’t know. At least we’re giving them a second chance.”
People who find murres or other sick or dead seabirds can call the Office of the State Wildlife Veterinarian at 907-328-8354; the Fish and Wildlife Service’s sick or dead bird hotline at 866-527-3358; Bird TLC at 907-562-4852; or the Alaska WildBird Rehabilitation Center at 907-892-2927.