Last week, the day after my Pueblo trip, an Ancient Murrelet was spotted at the same lake where I’d been the day before. I missed it. Rick Clawges had his camera with him in his canoe however, and was able to get some photographs and has graciously allowed me to share them here.
Brandon Percival, my birding guru, tells me this bird has been found alive in Colorado three times since 1990; Chatfield Reservoir and Bear Creek Lakes being the other spots. He said while there have been other records of the Ancient Murrelet in Colorado, there are likely less than ten altogether.
I’ve read the birds get blown in on strong Pacific storms in the late fall, but can’t really live this far inland, as they are an ocean bird that only feeds at sea. Some Ancient Murrelets move south in winter as far as California, and odd birds are found inland in North America, carried by autumn storms. The most remarkable record of this relatively short-distance Pacific migrant was a bird found on Lundy, Devon in spring 1990. Even more remarkably, the same bird returned to this British island the following spring.
According to Ted Floyd’s Smithsonian Field Guide, it is the wispy white plumes on the otherwise dark head of a breeding bird is what gives the bird its name ‘Ancient’.
This is the largest and most distinctive murrelet at ten inches length with a wingspan of 17 inches with a gray back and white under parts extending up under the throat and sides of the neck. Its legs are set well back on the body, somewhat like a murre. The bill is short and thick and yellow; legs and feet are a pale blue. Because the legs are so far back, they do not normally stand upright on land, but lie forward on their belly. They must flap their wings to keep upright when running; they seldom walk. It can take off from water with little to no running, but often lands by diving in head first or belly flopping. It perches awkwardly in trees, often sprawling across branches; sometimes lies on its belly on large limbs.
For an auk it has a strong and maneuverable flight ability and can move surprisingly quickly through dense vegetation; darting its head from side to side to steer through branches. It can descend slowly, practically hovering, to land softly on flat ground. Like all auks, this murrelet uses both wings and feet for swimming underwater; being quite well adapted to underwater swimming. Chicks are able to swim underwater as soon as they reach the sea.
It lives on cold waters along rocky coasts of the Pacific Rim, from China to British Columbia; in the US from Alaska to central California usually in pairs or small groups at sea, sometimes forming flocks up to fifty birds. They feed on small fish, juvenile sand eels and planktonic crustacea and larger zooplankton, mostly along the edge of the continental shelf.
The Ancient Murrelet is the most abundant and widespread member of the genus Synthliboramphus, the only seabirds in which the young are reared entirely at sea. These birds normally breed at sea and then the pair digs a burrow in soft forrest soil in shallow holes under clumps of grass or in cavities formed by tree roots, occasionaly in rocky openings. They generally nest less than 300m from the sea, often on steep slopes. They avoid flat, waterlogged areas, loose soil and locations where chicks must travel uphill at any point to reach the sea. They prefer to dig a new burrow each year, so most colonies contain many unused burrows. Usually there is a bend to the tunnel, so birds can’t be seen from the entrance. Some birds pull vegetation across the burrow entrance behind them, so burrows appear unused.
Colony visits are nocturnal, generally arriving about an hour and a half after sunset and departing by an hour before sunrise. Incubation shifts are an astounding 1-6 days, but three is usual; both sexes develop brood patches and incubate eggs. The pair greet vocally for up to 45 minutes and spend several hours together, before the departing bird leaves just before dawn.
Upon hatching the chicks spend, on average, two days in the burrow before heading, in the dark of night, for the sea. They are not fed, nor do they defecate, in their burrows. Their first meal is at sea. It is apparently quite a remarkable spectacle, beginning after the arrival of the off-duty adult, generally two to four hours after sunset, that the youngsters pour down the hillsides in a beautiful, living flood to the sea.
Brandon also mentioned,
"The Pueblo Reservoir Ancient Murrelet is the 418th bird species to be found in Pueblo County. Pueblo County has the largest bird species list, than any other county in Colorado. This is certainly one of the most surprising birds to have shown up in Pueblo County."
All photos by Rick Clawges