After 19 Years, the Ancient Murrelet Returns!
On the March 8, 2011 front page of the Qingdao Evening Newspaper (Wan Bao/晚报) was talk of an extremely rare sighting of an Ancient Murrelet, which occurred just off the southern coast of Qingdao on Monday, March 7. Although the bird is quite common in the northeastern Pacific off the coasts of Canada, it has not been spotted around Qingdao since 1992.

In China it is listed as a Susceptible Species in the Endangered Species Red Book, although populations in the Pacific Northeast seem to be less at threat, and do not even make the endangered list. Supposedly reasons for decline in the Yellow Sea include coastal oil pollution as well as predation on their eggs, mostly by fisherman that is (and we are going to surmise that the use of fishing nets as traps has also played no small part in the decline of local populations).

According to local engineer and ornithologist Wang Ximing, the Ancient Murrelet frequently breeds on the Japanese archipelago, but within China, they only tend to breed on the rocky islands off Qingdao’s coast, as they are not the most courageous birds and like to hide their nests away in the precipitous rock cliffs found here. The birds usually arrive in the area around January and mate during February-March, which is one of the earliest mating seasons of any local bird. At this time crustacean populations flourish in the sea, which is one of the main parts of their diet. Wang Ximing also point to the decrease in Qingdao fish populations as another factor in the birds’ local decline.

In Chinese, the Ancient Murrelet is often referred to as a small penguin, with its black body and white belly resembling that of its flightless cousin. The etymology of its Latin scientific name, Synthliboramphus antiquus, extends back to the first sighting by a European, who decided its white eyebrows and sideburns resemble that of an old man’s, thus the Ancient.

Wang Ximing would also like to push to make the bird a type of ‘mascot’ for Qingdao, bringing not only more attention to its decreasing numbers in the local area, but also more to promote bird conservation ideas in general. It is quite a peculiar bird in that it is the only member of the auk family that raises its young entirely at the sea. Just a few days after the eggs hatch, the fledglings scuttle out to sea at night (to avoid terrestrial predators) where they will swim almost five miles out to sea where the parents are waiting while calling for them. Once in the ocean the parents care for it for several weeks.

More on Qingdao’s proposed mascot from PBS:

“But the bird with least connection of all to land is the ancient murrelet, filmed at Buldir in the Aleutian Islands. This strange bird has dispensed altogether with the need to return to land to feed its chick, unlike most seabirds, which return to land to breed and feed their chicks on land until they are almost fully grown.
The murrelet lays its eggs in burrows. The chicks hatch and, for the first day, feed off their egg sac. Then, at dead of night, two days after the chicks hatched, the parents fly out to sea, calling their young to follow with a continuous sparrow-like chirping. The fluffy black and white chicks, still unable to fly or feed on their own, pour in a living flood down the hillsides. They evade killer mice and insomniac ravens, and hurtle for the surf like downy toys on clockwork legs, heeding the call of their parents. They don’t stop when they reach the water, but pursue their parents into the breakers and swim five miles out to sea. Once here they will continue to be fed for a few more weeks until they can fly.”

Relevant Links:
Qingdao Newspaper Group Online

Photo Credit @ Birds Korea

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