Mystery Murrelet

Yesterday morning, my wife and I spotted a small, chunky bird in the mouth of the Columbia River. Bobbing in the gentle waves near shore, its shape and plumage immediately suggested that this loner was a murrelet, small members of the alcid family that breed on land but spend most of their lives at sea.

The marbled murrelet is the most common species to be found along the coasts of Washington and Oregon. Unlike most other sea birds, they are not colonial, often nesting well inland from the rugged shoreline. But our visitor had a mottled, light-gray face, with only a faint, dark stripe along the center of its crown; its body had dark-gray mottling, its feet and legs were black and its wings were dark gray with white streaking. Consulting the guide books, it seemed to be a Kittlitz's murrelet, an endangered sea bird that is found from Glacier Bay, Alaska, to Siberia; further research indicated that this species, which apparently nests on tundra along mountain glaciers, has not been observed south of Alaska.

Did we stumble on a wayward, juvenile Kittlitz's murrelet or was our discovery a case of mistaken identity? In the course of researching this blog, I have learned that little is known about the true range of this small sea bird; perhaps some individuals winter further to the south than currently documented. Then again, perhaps the Columbia River bird was merely a genetic variant of a more common murrelet species. Nature always keeps us guessing.