Ancient Murrelet – Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge

During the summer I am beyond fortunate to be one of the research supervisors on Seal Island NWR (restricted access). SINWR is located just 22 miles from Rockland, Maine and is managed by the National Audubon Seabird Restoration Program, aka Project Puffin. It is home to a large breeding colonial nesting seabirds including Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill, Black Guillemot, Arctic and Common Terns, Herring and Black-backed Gulls, as well as Great and Double-crested Cormorants. It has also hosted a summer resident Red-billed Tropicbird for many years. Seemingly every year it’s unique location attracts a rarity or two.

On Friday, May 13th a friend, local boat captain, and guru on the natural history of the Gulf of Maine was dropping off some equipment and got the chance to enjoy the birds of the island for the day. He was scoping one of the Razorbill rafts just offshore in one of the large coves on the west side of the island when he spotted a small alcid amongst its seemingly gigantic companions. He first picked it up in flight and thought about the possibility of it being the most likely small alcid in the Atlantic, the Dovekie. This was quickly dismissed when the birds landed and he could see the prominent features of this mystery bird; its beautiful slate gray back, stunning white eyebrow and dainty little bill.


Ancient Murrelet cruising with a flock of Razorbills. Photo © Keenan Yakola

I was busy doing some work on the other end of the island when he returned and told me had just seen a small alcid that he was not familiar with. This was surprising as John is an experienced observer with an exceptional knowledge regarding seabirds in the NW Atlantic. He suspected that it was one of the small Pacific alcids so I quickly grabbed Sibley for him and turned the pages to the murrelets. He flipped the page past Marbled Murrelet and then laid his finger on the book without saying a single word. I was out the door.

Grabbing one of my co-workers, a scope, binoculars, and camera, we sprinted across the boulders and finally reached the spot John had specified. Scanning the rafts of Razorbills, I picked out the small alcid, and indeed it was an Ancient Murrelet! It was floating close to shore, associating with a small flock of Razorbills, which seemed to at least be tolerating this wee stranger. When the group took flight it was close in tow while they whirled around, making a few passes before the murrelet split off and landed on the open water about a mile off the island. Unfortunately, searching by both land and by sea we never turned up the bird again that day.


Ancient Murrelet flaying past a Common Eider pair. Photo © Keenan Yakola.

Ancient Murrelets are a truly fascinating small alcid of the Pacific Northwest. They nest on coastal island slopes from British Columbia, to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. They burrow under rocks, tree roots, and logs before laying either one or two eggs. The real behavioral twist that makes Ancient Murrelets unique amongst alcids is that the males will come ashore at night and often use perches such as tree branches to sing! Soon after eggs hatch the parents will call their chicks to see and raise their fluffy progeny entirely at sea.

I recently saw my first Ancient Murrelet while birding with my girlfriend in Port Townsend, Washington, but I would have never guessed that I would see one at my summer home on Seal Island NWR in Maine (I guess I could have said the same thing about the Yellow-billed Loon that showed up in January in my home town on Cape Cod, Massachusetts though!,). A number of vagrant Ancient Murrelet records have been accepted in the northeastern United States including sightings from New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and now Maine. What makes this sighting really stand out as unusual is that it is was in the spring. Almost all other Ancient Murrelet sightings have been detected in the fall and early winter. The only other eastern records during the spring (March through May) include a single sighting in Wisconsin and another in Vermont.

What makes Maine’s first accepted Ancient Murrelet record even more fascinating is that it is currently touring Maine’s coastal seabird colonies by island hopping (assuming this is in fact the same bird). As previously mentioned it was first seen on Seal Island NWR on May 13th, then on May 22nd it was seen again on Petit Manan NWR just north of SINWR, and again on the 27th off Machais Seal Island at the boundary of the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy. I somewhat assumed that this bird would continue north trying to find it way home, but on June 1st it headed south again to Petit Manan NWR! I am personally really looking forward to seeing how long this bird continues it tour and where it may end up next. Of course I’m hoping that it drops by Seal Island NWR for another visit!

If you are at all interested in visiting the waters off Seal Island NWR (the island itself is closed to the public) there are three options:

  1. John Drury’s Boat Tours aboard the Skua
  2. Old Quarry Ocean Adventure aboard the Nigh Duck
  3. Isle au Haut Boat Services aboard the Mink