Hundreds of grounded common murres continue to challenge rescuers and baffle scientists as Alaskans grapple with the mystery of the starving, disoriented seabirds.
The sightings of the small, penguin-like murres far from their normal marine feeding grounds now stretch inland to Glennallen, Healy and even as far north as Two Rivers outside Fairbanks.
The marine birds that generally can't take off without water began showing up on the ground far from the North Pacific in October, and were mostly found around Palmer and Wasilla, rescuers say. Then stormy weather last week brought with it a sudden spate of murre sightings from Whittier to Sutton and Talkeetna, with many in the Upper Susitna Valley. More recently, people in the Denali Borough reported numerous murres.
Experts say it's extremely unusual for the birds to venture inland, much less as far inland as Interior Alaska.
This most recent wave of murre strandings is part of a broader seabird die-off in coastal Alaska first reported in March and part of a widespread seabird die-off up and down the Pacific coast. Scientists say it's possible warmer water is forcing the little fish and other marine life the birds usually eat deeper than murres can dive.
Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage -- the Southcentral Alaska clearinghouse for rehabilitating and releasing the birds -- has received 382 murres since late October and released 291, according to Katie Middlebrook, the center's avian rehabilitation coordinator. More than 220 came in since Jan. 1 alone.
Normally, the center sees maybe a handful of murres in an entire year.
Eighty-three of the apparently starving birds died or were euthanized after being determined too medically unstable to survive rehab or release, Middlebrook said. Eight remained at the center for additional care as of Monday.
Cantwell resident Lynn McAloon and her sister Jill Boelsma fostered four of the Interior murres: one found by McAloon's husband on a snowmachining trip; one picked up near the couple's home; one scooped up by a dog musher near the Nenana River; and one rescued by four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race winner Jeff King on a Denali Highway trip.
King and Kristin Bacon posted a Facebook video of their bird find on New Year's Day.
"Look what we got on the trail today -- a penguin!! We caught a penguin!" King is heard saying.
"He's a little lost," Bacon says, as she holds the bird for the camera. King explains the bird was "just waddling down the trail" when his team ran up on it. The bird was taken to Diamond Animal Hospital in Anchorage, where about 10 birds were stabilized and transported to Bird TLC over the weekend.
A musher spotted rafts of the birds in open leads on the Nenana River, McAloon said. Residents also saw several dead murres.
"We surmise there were probably hundreds that blew up this way," she said.
The birds may be taking the exceptional step of flying inland to find food, Middlebrook said. "They keep going until physically they can't fly any more."
The sudden pulse of stranded seabirds prompted the center to build a new swim tank and places for the birds to haul out of the water, she said, adding that donations of smelt, silverside and herring have been a "tremendous help."
Center staff expect the waves of murre strandings to continue through the winter.
Bird TLC offers the following instructions to people who come across a grounded common murre:
If you come across one of these birds near water, please leave it there. If the bird is on the ground and no water is nearby, please follow these steps:
• If the bird has been found in Anchorage or south of the Anchorage area, call Bird TLC at 907-562-4852.
• If the bird has been found north of the Anchorage area, call Alaska WildBird Rehabiltation Center at 907-892-2927.