Logging, Crumbs, and Lost Fish: The Story of the Marbled Murrelet

Cover photo: © Tom Benson, 2014, some rights reserved.

Did you know that there’s a seabird that builds its nest high up in redwood trees? Learn about the marbled murrelet – from their breeding biology to what we think could be causing their population declines.

Cover photo: © Tom Benson, 2014, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Quick Facts

  • Marbled murrelets are seabirds that venture inland to build their nests high up in redwood trees.
  • The health of coast redwood forests affects marbled murrelet populations, since murrelets need redwood forest habitats to breed.
  • Despite considerable conservation of redwood forests, marbled murrelet numbers are still declining by 4 percent annually.
  • Scientists have found that predation by Steller’s jays attracted to campgrounds by human food is affecting marbled murrelet numbers.
  • Since murrelets are seabirds, the health of our oceans could also be impacting marbled murrelet populations.

 

The Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet

Our story begins with a mystery.

Marbled murrelets are robin-sized seabirds that are closely related to puffins and murres. As is the norm for other seabirds, scientists expected the marbled murrelet to nest in large colonies along the rocky coast. Yet no such breeding colonies of marbled murrelets were found, despite the habits of their close relatives. The nesting place of the marbled murrelet remained an unsolved mystery to ornithologists in North America for over a century.

This changed in 1974, when a worker performing maintenance at Big Basin State Park discovered a lone nest high up in a redwood tree. The nest contained a single chick, which strangely had webbed feet. He snapped a photo that was later identified by bird experts as a marbled murrelet youngster. The mystery of the marbled murrelet nesting place was solved.

Defying all expectations of a seabird, these clever nesters fly 20 miles inland to construct nests high up in the cover of redwood trees. With this discovery, the marbled murrelet became the most recent bird species to have its nest found in North America.

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A coast redwood towering over the trail at Big Basin State Park, the site of the first documented marbled murrelet nest. Old-growth coast redwoods are the nesting sites of marbled murrelets.

Logging and the Loss of Murrelets

The California Gold Rush of 1848 brought steep human population increases to the San Francisco Bay Area – and with these population increases also came a huge demand for lumber. Settlers turned to the redwood stands along California’s coast for their supply. The irresponsible logging stripped most of the old-growth redwood forest from our coastline. It is estimated that only 5% of old-growth coast redwood trees survived logging.

Coast redwoods are critical to breeding marbled murrelets. Thus, the declines of redwood forests were closely intertwined to declines in marbled murrelet populations. The low murrelet numbers recorded off our coasts resulted in their listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1992. In California, they are state-listed as endangered.

The fate of the murrelets, along with other calls for the reduction of logging in the northwest, led to the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan under President Clinton. The plan protected 9.7 million hectares of old-growth forest along the coast of California, Oregon, and Washington.

Despite the protected breeding habitats, scientists monitoring murrelet populations still found that their numbers were declining. The population around California, Oregon, and Washington is continuing to decline by as much as 4 percent per year.

Crumbs, Jays, and Predation

A study at Redwood National and State Parks discovered one potential cause of the murrelet declines: predation by other birds, namely Steller’s jays.

Steller’s jays are crested blue and black birds found along the west coast of North America and south into Mexico. They are corvids, belonging to the same family as crows, ravens, and other jays. In addition to their diets of plant matter and insects, they will eat the eggs and young of other bird species.

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A common sign at campgrounds, featuring a Steller’s jay and a warning to clean up all traces of food. Source: Save the Redwoods League.

Steller’s jays are common at campgrounds, as their varied diet is supplemented by leftover food and crumbs from humans. These “crummy” areas attract jays and increase their density, thereby increasing the chances of Steller’s jays finding and predating the nests of marbled murrelets.

Public education programs are in place to decrease the amount of food left behind by humans. The initiative’s goal is to decrease the number of murrelet predators attracted to a given area. Signs are present in parks, warning people that food waste (even as small as a single crumb) has the potential to impact marbled murrelets.

Ocean Threats Still Loom

Scientists still don’t have all of the answers to what’s causing the murrelet population decline.

One factor affecting their numbers could be the availability of food off our coast. A study in Washington found that 80% of marbled murrelet nest attempts failed due to issues relating to low prey availability.

We do know that more frequent and intense El Niño events caused by climate change are negatively impacting fish populations. El Niño is a naturally-occurring phenomenon in which the number of upwellings of nutrient-rich cold water is reduced relative to “normal” years. Plankton, a main food source for fish, rely on the nutrients from the upwellings. With no plankton to eat, the fish populations (and the seabirds that depend on them) can be negatively impacted.

What does this mean for the marbled murrelet? Our efforts on land can be executed flawlessly, but the dual-lifestyle of this enigmatic seabird makes it so that their populations can still be harmed by threats to our oceans.

Stories such as these bring to light the importance of protecting as many diverse areas as possible. A holistic approach to conservation is necessary to save species that live such diverse lives.

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A view of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

Sources:

California’s State Flower: The California Poppy

With bright orange flowers and intricate blue-green leaves, the California poppy is a state flower showstopper.

Places to See California Poppies

Rancho San Antionio Circle

Rancho San Antonio County Park

California poppies are the state flower of California.

The gorgeous orange flower was granted its state flower designation in 1903. Because the California poppy is the state flower, it is illegal to pick them on property that you don’t own. However, you are free to plant its seeds and raise the live plant.

California also celebrates California Poppy Day each year on April 6th. On this holiday, California public schools are encouraged to teach kids about poppies and other wildflowers.

California poppies aren’t only found in California.

They are native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. They have also been introduced to other areas across the U.S.

California poppies are adaptable plants, making them able to live in very different environments. They can be found along coasts and are very common in the Mojave Desert.

California poppies have bright, orange flowers and intricate blue-green leaves.

Their flowers are composed of four petals, ranging from bright orange to yellow. Flowers may also have darker orange centers.

California poppies close their flowers at night and on cloudy days.

California poppies can detect light levels and adjust their petals to be open or closed depending on the light availability. If you see these flowers along the trails with petals clasped together, chances are it’s cloudy.

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California poppies along the trail at Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve.

Cool facts about California poppies:

  • California poppies were named by Russian explorers in 1816.
  • Poppies don’t make very good bouquet flowers – their petals fall off soon after the flower is picked.
  • California poppies are also known as “cups of flame” and “golden poppy”.

Resources to learn more:

Bursts of Color: Indian Paintbrush

This parasitic beauty is a common flower along California’s trails. Learn more about its biology.

Indian paintbrushes are parasitic plants.

Indian paintbrushes can still photosynthesize just like any other plant, but they are better able to survive poor weather conditions by stealing from their neighbors.

Paintbrushes parasitize other plants using structures called haustoria. Haustoria attach to the roots of host plants, creating a connection that allows the paintbrush to steal nutrients and water.

Indian paintbrushes vary in color.

Paintbrushes can be found in shades of red, pink, and yellow. In California, they bloom from February to May, allowing you to witness their different colors.

The top “brush” of the plant isn’t a flower.

The top “brush” of the indian paintbrush deceptively looks like a flower. This showy top is actually composed of modified leaves, which house the flowers. The flowers themselves look like small tubes.

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Paintbrush at Land’s End in San Francisco

Indian paintbrushes don’t make very good garden plants.

Because they are parasitic and require a host plant, it is very difficult to grow indian paintbrushes in your garden. While I’ve never tried it myself, gardeners have found success in growing paintbrushes in the same pot as a good host plant. For more information on how to grow paintbrushes, feel free to check out this paintbrush gardening article from SF Gate.

Cool facts about indian paintbrushes:

  • Indian paintbrushes belong to genus Castilleja, which includes over 200 species of plants. The species are spread throughout the United States and Mexico, with 35 in California alone.
  • The genus name of the indian paintbrush, Castilleja, was named for Spanish botanist Domingo Castillejo.

Resources to learn more:

Spot an Owl at Shoreline Regional Park

Mountain View, Ca – Right in the heart of the Silicon Valley, Shoreline Regional Park is a gem where you can see wildlife from burrowing owls to pelicans.

Species to Look Out For

burrowing owl circle

Western Burrowing Owl

About the Park

Mountain View, Ca – Regional Park

Science Spotlight: Burrowing Owls at Shoreline Park

The western burrowing owl is a small species of diurnal owl, meaning that it’s active primarily during the day. True to their name, western burrowing owls nest and reside in burrows in the ground – relying on sites that have already been excavated by burrowing mammals such as the California ground squirrel.

The burrowing owl has been experiencing steep population declines over the past 30 years due to habitat loss. Their population was estimated at 640 birds in the 1980’s, with three-quarters of the population residing in the South Bay alone. In 2017, the South Bay reported just 64 adults at 5 breeding sites.

The City of Mountain View employs a part-time specialist in charge of monitoring the burrowing owls, restoring their habitat, and ensuring park plans are in line with federal and state regulations protecting the owls. Local organizations, such as the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, are also involved in initiatives to help protect the burrowing owls.

For more information on western burrowing owls in the Bay Area, check out the Bay Area Naturalist article The Bay Area’s Fight for the Western Burrowing Owl.

Park History

The area around Mountain View and Sunnyvale was once inhabited by the Ohlone Native Americans. Spanish settlers arrived in the 1700’s, and established the first missions in the area in 1777.

The area that is now Shoreline Park was formerly a dump/junk site, a hog farm, and a sewage treatment plant. In 1968, Mountain View decided to renovate the park to make the space available to the public for enjoyment of the outdoors. The park was completed in 1983, relying on garbage from San Francisco and neighboring cities to provide fill for the area.

The park is near the Rengstorff House, a historical mansion built in the 1860’s. You can also see the Shoreline Amphitheater, a popular concert venue in the Bay Area.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is no entrance fee to enter the park. Dogs are not allowed.

We recommend taking the trail from the Shoreline Boathouse parking lot towards the kite-flying area. Be sure to scan California ground squirrel burrows for burrowing owls!

Here are some helpful resources to plan your visit:

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Essentials in My Outdoor Backpack

Whether I’m getting ready for a day hike or a long walk to do some birding, I make sure that my backpack has the essentials. Here’s a list of things that I like to keep handy at all times, as well as a few optional things!

Whether I’m getting ready for a day hike or a long birding walk, I make sure that my backpack has the essentials. Here’s a list of things that I like to keep handy at all times, as well as a few optional things!

Health & Safety Items

Extra water

If there’s one thing I’ve learned to be careful about, it’s making sure to always pack extra water! Just in case you take a wrong turn on your hike that extends the trip, or the weather ends up being a crazy heat storm, it never hurts to have some extra water on hand.

First aid kit

To help with first aid preparedness, I bought a small travel-sized kit that fits right in my backpack. In case you’re looking to downsize on the amount of room your items take up, it never hurts to grab a Ziplock bag and throw in some band-aids, gauze, a pack of electrolytes, a couple of Q-tips, Neosporin, and a pack of ibuprofen.

A map

It’s always a good idea to plan your route ahead of time. In addition to this, I like to print or pick up a map before my hike so that I’m prepared if I make any wrong turns.

A snack

Just in case I need a little boost on the trail, I like to have an individually-packaged snack on hand. My favorites include small bags of trail mix or Clif Bars.

Sunscreen

This one goes without saying. If you don’t want to end your hike looking like a lobster special, I like to apply before and bring some along just in case. To minimize on the amount of things you’re carrying, I find it’s helpful to buy a travel-sized lotion container and throw some sunscreen in there.

Hat

Depending on the season that I’m hiking, I like to pack either a baseball cap or a beanie.

An extra warm layer

No matter the forecast, I like to be prepared just in case there’s a weird lapse in the expected weather. Try packing a light shell that’s easy to fold up and store in your bag.

One pair of extra socks

You’re on your third mile of a ten-mile hike and you’ve stepped in a puddle deep enough to get around your waterproof shoes. Now what? Extra socks, of course!

Field Observation Items

Waterproof notebook

My favorite outdoor notebook is a Rite-in-the-Rain spiral-bound notebook. They’re a bit on the expensive side, but well worth it in case your bag gets wet. These little guys have survived many disasters with me over the years – from having an angry herring gull poop right in the middle of my page to my book being dropped in a mud puddle while stalking superb lyrebirds.

Pencil or waterproof pen

This goes along with the waterproof notebook. Pencils will work flawlessly in the Rite-in-the-Rain notebooks. However, if you’re looking for something a little more fancy, I would suggest the waterproof pen made by Rite-in-the-Rain. Again, they’re on the expensive side, but my pen has lasted years and is well worth it.

Field guide

I love looking up what species I’m observing right in the moment. To help with this, I pack a local field guide. My favorites include Sibley’s mini-sized Guide to Birds of Western North America. The Audubon Society also has put out a number of amazing pocket-sized guides to wildflowers, butterflies, and trees of North America. If you’re looking for deals, libraries will often have monthly book sales where you can pick up heaps of guides like these for 50 cents to a dollar each.

Plastic ruler

I love bringing flexible, bendy rulers that have a plastic coating so that they’re also waterproof. These help in case you need to measure something you find in the field.

Watch

Good field observations have the time and date that they’re recorded! Never miss out on a good field note by keeping a watch handy.

Optional Items

Multi-tool

Okay, I’ll admit – I’ve only used my Leatherman multi-tool out in the field a handful of timesBut each time it saves the day so drastically that it’s well worth carrying around.

Compass

I love to know generally which direction I’m headed, just in case I end up off-trail. I especially like the compasses with glow-in-the-dark headings. My favorite one comes attached to a ruler!

Camera

As you can tell, I love shooting photos of wildlife and landscapes while out on my outdoor adventures. There are some relatively affordable digital SLR cameras out there, too! I recommend Canon’s Rebel series.

Binoculars

What kind of birdwatcher would I be if I didn’t carry around my trusty binoculars all the time?

The ‘Not-so’ Lesser Goldfinch

Cover photo: © Ingrid Taylar, 2017, some rights reserved.

Did you know that lesser goldfinches copy the sounds of other birds in their song? Learn about this and more in post about the lesser goldfinch!

Cover photo: © Ingrid Taylar, 2017, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Places to See Lesser Goldfinches

Pearson-Arastradero Circle

Pearson-Arastradero Preserve

 

Lesser goldfinches are a common California bird.

They can be found in a variety of habitats, ranging from oak and eucalyptus forests to neighborhood backyards. I’m used to seeing them frequently flitting between shrubs around my neighborhood or perched on tall grass in open habitats.

Their range in the United States extends across the southwest, and down into Mexico and Central America.

Lesser goldfinches look a lot like their close relatives, American goldfinches.

Lesser goldfinches are the smallest goldfinch species in the U.S. at 3.5 – 4.7 inches. They have black wings, tails, and crowns, with yellow underparts (the area encompassing the breast, belly, and beneath the tail).

Lesser goldfinches look very similar to their close relatives, the American goldfinch. Two distinguishing characteristics between lesser and American goldfinches are their bills and the presence or absence of a white patch on their wings. Lesser goldfinches have black bills, whereas American goldfinches have orange bills. Lesser goldfinches also have a prominent white patch on their primary wing feathers (the longest feathers on their wings), whereas this feature is absent in American goldfinches.

Female lesser goldfinches look very similar to the males, but are lacking the black cap.

Lesser Goldfinch
Photo © 2018 Matthew Buynoski. Male lesser goldfinch at Pearson-Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto, Ca.

Lesser goldfinches eat mostly seeds, but will also snack on small insects.

Their short, thick bills make these finches perfect for eating seeds. They will also eat small insects such as aphids. They are commonly found associated with thistle, eating the seeds both at feeders and on the plant itself.

These bright birds frequent my feeder at home as well! From my observations, they to tend prefer black oil sunflower and nyjer seeds.

Both the male and female lesser goldfinch will raise young.

Lesser goldfinches build cup nests (nests that are shaped like a bowl), and breed starting around April. They build their nests in trees or shrubs above the ground, laying 4-5 eggs which hatch after 12 days of incubation. Both parents will take turns feeding the young, which will leave the nest after 12 – 15 days.

Lesser goldfinches that live in California don’t usually migrate.

While many species of bird migrate south for the winter to escape cold temperatures, lesser goldfinches that live in California don’t usually migrate. Populations that live farther north will sometimes migrate short distances in the winter.

Cool facts about lesser goldfinches:

  • Just like pet parrots will mimic (copy) the sounds around their homes, lesser goldfinches are known to copy the sounds of other birds in their song.
  • Lesser goldfinches are one of three goldfinch species in the United States: the lesser goldfinch, the American goldfinch, and Lawrence’s goldfinch. All three species can be found in California (but Lawrence’s only when they’re breeding!).

Resources to learn more: