Maritime, Science

Common Murre Die Off Along Waterfront

Common murre carcass found Sunday at Lowell Point beach. Heidi Zemach photo.
Common murre carcass found Sunday at Lowell Point beach. Heidi Zemach photo.

By Heidi Zemach for SCN –

If you’ve walked Seward waterfronts lately, you might have come across the carcasses of common murres or you might have spotted bald eagles feasting on them. There’s been a lot of the carcasses spotted, and people are calling in, said Dr. Carrie Goertz, a staff veterinarian at Alaska SeaLife Center who also helps manage the stranding program and disaster response. Most of the murres are very thin and emaciated, indicating starvation, she said. The phenomenon is apparently a murre die-off, or “wreck,” and is probably caused by these small marine birds having exhausted their nutritional reserves, with the sudden bouts of cold temperatures and waves of poor weather in mid to late March pushing them over the edge to their deaths. Also, the fish biomass may not have coincided with when they were in the area, plus in a weakened state they’re easier prey for predators, or to get hit by cars, the latter two of which she saw examples of in the bird carcasses brought in to ASLC, Goertz said. The center vets did some cursory examinations of the murres they found, but are sending them to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey for more in-depth examinations.

Common Murre Carcass found Sunday at Lowell Point beach. Heidi Zemach photo.
Common Murre Carcass found Sunday at Lowell Point beach. Heidi Zemach photo.

Common murres eat small fish, and breed in rocky cliffs. They travel great distances seeking food.

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These die-offs tend to be cyclical, and there have been other murre wrecks reported historically in the Seward area, although people observe that this one seems more pronounced than in the past. In 2005, a year after Dr. Goertz came to Seward, she remembers another die-off of common murres. They often occur at around the same time of year, before spring productivity hits.  Common murre die offs, and other mass deaths of other auklet species have been reported in other coastal areas of South Central, and clear down the Pacific coast from California to Canada, and on the Oregon coastline.

Almost all of the dozen common murres this SCN reporter and her husband Robert spotted along the downtown Seward waterfront and Lowell Point last weekend had their bellies eaten out by scavengers, probably eagles but also by gulls and other critters. The bellies are less protected by bones, and thus easier to get at, Goertz said. There were several pairs of eagles perched in the trees above some of the carcasses, and another eagle on a post along Lowell Point Road, eating what appeared to be one.

Carol Griswold took this photo of a Common Murre.
Carol Griswold took this photo of a Common Murre.

 

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