Rare Sighting of an Ancient Murrelet Chick
July 3, 2019
Every season on Southeast Farallon Island has its share of surprises. From the residency of a northern gannet in 2012, to the invasion of hundreds of fork-tailed storm-petrels in 2017. This year it’s a family group of ancient murrelets, a species of wing-propelled diving seabirds that breeds well north of the Farallones.
Seabirds generally seek out remote predator-free islands as a refuge to lay eggs and rear chicks. This strategy ties individuals to their respective breeding colonies, limiting the maximum distance parents can travel to search for provisions for their chicks. Possibly as a means to overcome this limitation, ancient murrelets have adopted a different strategy. Rather than bringing food back to their chicks, they bring their chicks out to the food. A mere 1-3 days after hatching, persistent calls from devoted parents compel their chicks (up to 2 in a clutch) to take a plunge into the cold North Pacific ocean and paddle out to sea. These chicks, nothing more than buoyant balls of down with legs, follow their parents into the productive waters of the Pacific, slowly growing off a diet of zooplankton until they are big enough to fly and forage on their own.
What makes this sighting of a family group unique and exciting for the Farallones is the fact that ancient murrelets predominately breed hundreds of kilometers away on the Aleutian Islands and throughout Southeast Alaska. A sighting of a chick off the island, which was likely no more than 25 days old, means it must have hatched somewhere relatively nearby – a noteworthy observation considering Washington State is the furthest south they’ve ever been confirmed to breed.