Ancient Murrelets in the Mountain West, Great Lakes, and Beyond

by Amy Davis

December 5, 2023

Ancient Murrelet is a tiny, grizzled wanderer of the world’s largest ocean and beyond. Its usual range spans the Northern Pacific―from the East China Sea to the Kuril Islands, and the Aleutians south to central California. A few of these turnstone-sized alcids are discovered inland and on the East Coast about annually, and from 1882−2022, no fewer than 37 states, provinces, and territories from Yukon to Florida had hosted the species. However, in fall 2023, an amazing total of 10 Ancient Murrelets turned up well inland, from the Snake River in Oregon to Chickamauga Lake in Tennessee.

Tennessee’s first Ancient Murrelet allowed close observation on Chickamauga Lake, Chattanooga, Hamilton Co. 24 Nov 2023. Photo © Victor Stoll.

Vagrant Ancient Murrelets occur mostly in fall and mostly in the Rocky Mountains, on the Great Lakes, and along the Atlantic coast. In the last decade or so, the species has been increasingly found out of range and has appeared all the way across the Atlantic to Finland and Spain. Despite being far more numerous than usual, reports in fall 2023 mainly aligned with Ancient Murrelet’s established pattern of vagrancy in the Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes regions, with an outlier state first in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Fall 2023 Reports of Vagrant Ancient Murrelets

Location

City

County/

Regional District

State/Province

Date(s) Present

Snake River

Imnaha

Wallowa

Oregon

6 Aug

Okanagan Lake

Penticton

Okanagan-

Similkameen

British Columbia

1 Oct

Lake Lowell

Nampa

Canyon

Idaho

26 Oct

Lake Huron

Sarnia

Lambton

Ontario

7 Nov

Lake Ontario

Hamilton

Hamilton

Ontario

16−17 Nov

Columbia River

Hood River

Hood River

Oregon

18 Nov

(Delivered to rehab)

Hastings

Dakota

Minnesota

18 Nov

Chequamegon Bay

Ashland

Ashland

Wisconsin

20 Nov

Sturgeon Bay

Sturgeon Bay

Door

Wisconsin

21−28 Nov

Chickamauga Lake

Chattanooga

Hamilton

Tennessee

24 Nov−3 Dec

Several converging factors could account for the abundance of this season’s out-of-range records, but all may ultimately be products of climate change, both short-term and long-term. Historically, inland birds have appeared following strong westerly winds in the Pacific pushing storms into shore, and in late September 2023, a bomb cyclone crashed into British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and northern California—the heart of Ancient Murrelet’s range in the eastern North Pacific.

Bomb cyclone in the northeast Pacific. 25 Sep 2023. Satellite weather image from Windy.com.

September’s bomb cyclone followed months of record-warm ocean surface temperatures throughout Ancient Murrelet’s range on both sides of the North Pacific. Over the boreal summer, a strong El Niño pushed warm water further north into already too-warm water, resulting in temperatures that were as many as 9°F (5°C) above average. Cold water sea life congregates at frigid upwellings where higher oxygenation makes prey abundant. Marine heat waves kill off this prey, sending pelagic creatures, including Ancient Murrelets, elsewhere in search of food. This is the same phenomenon that causes birds to be displaced by El Niño.

(Read about how El Niño affected seabirds in South and Central America in Alvaro Jaramillo’s excellent Field Ornithology article here.)

Map of sea surface temperature anomalies in Sep 2023 as compared to average temperatures from 1985−1993. Warmer-than-average temperatures are in red, and cooler-than-average temperatures are in blue. Warm water off South America and Asia is typical during El Niño. SST Anomalies map by NOAA.

In Sep 2023, as in most summer−fall seasons since 2007, a thawed Northwest Passage connected the Pacific Ocean, Hudson Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean, offering an almost complete water route to the Great Lakes for wandering murrelets. An open Northwest Passage may explain the increase in Ancient Murrelet sightings in the Atlantic and Great Lakes over the last decade or so. Several other seabird species formerly relegated to either the Pacific or Atlantic have been appearing on the Great Lakes or the “wrong” ocean since the Northwest Passage opened up in 2007: Long-billed Murrelet, Northern Gannet, Tufted Puffin, and most recently, a stunning Short-tailed Shearwater on Lake Ontario in New York on 7 November.

Recommended citation: Davis, Amy. 2023. Ancient Murrelets in the Mountain West, Great Lakes, and Beyond. North American Birds.

Sources:

Spencer G. Sealy et al. (2001). Specimen records and sightings of Ancient Murrelet from the Canadian prairie. Blue Jay 59 (4).

Edward A. Munyer. (1965). Inland wanderings of the Ancient Murrelet. The Wilson Bulletin 77 (3).

C. Seabird McKeon et al. (2015). Melting barriers to faunal exchange across ocean basins. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.13116

Halliman, K., Russell, T. & Vernet, M. (2022). Investigation into potential range shifts of murrelet species in the Southern California Current Ecosystem. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/73m1x2sc

“What is a ‘bomb cyclone,’ the weather pattern battering B.C.’s coast and Haida Gwaii?” https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/what-is-a-bomb-cyclone-bombogenesis-1.6977647

Atlas of the Breeding Birds of British Columbia. https://www.birdatlas.bc.ca/accounts/speciesaccount.jsp?sp=ANMU&lang=en

“Assessing the Global Climate in September 2023.” https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/news/global-climate-202309#

“Large Marine Heatwave Reaches Oregon and Washington Coasts.” https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/large-marine-heatwave-reaches-oregon-and-washington-coasts

Amy Davis is Associate Editor of North American Birds and special issues of Birding, as well as Editor of ABA’s online Field Ornithology series and Regional Compiler for NAB’s Hudson-Delaware region. She supports community science, participates in various breeding bird atlases, and serves on two state records committees. A lover of fishing and pelagic birding, Amy resides in Forked River, New Jersey.