Hike a Closed Section of Highway 1 at Devil’s Slide Trail

Pacifica, Ca – Once a troublesome segment of highway, Devil’s Slide Trail was converted into a recreational trail in 2014. Visit the area to see awesome seabirds and raptors, and to learn more about the Common Murre Restoration Project that’s active in the area.

Species to Look Out For

Common murre circle

Common Murre

About the Park

Pacifica, Ca – Segment of California Coastal Trail

Science Spotlight: Common Murre Restoration at Egg Rock

Common murres are gorgeous and vaguely penguin-looking seabirds. Common murres actively breed in colonies at Egg Rock, which is visible from Devil’s Slide Trail.

The Egg Rock colony was estimated to have 3,000 birds in the early 1980’s; however, disaster struck with the 1986 Apex Houston oil spill. The oil spill delivered a fatal blow to the common murre population, eliminating the birds at Egg Rock. Scientists, determined not to let the population of common murres vanish, formed the Common Murre Restoration Project. The project, run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, set out to restore the Egg Rock population that was wiped out during the oil spill. It also sought to increase the numbers of common murres and other seabirds across Central California.

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Egg Rock, visible just offshore of the Devil’s Slide Trail.

To restore murres, the project employed social attraction techniques. Social attraction, first developed by Project Puffin to restore breeding Atlantic puffin populations, works by tricking birds into thinking that other individuals of the same species are already present at a specific location. This incentivizes breeding birds to set up their nests at that location.

To trick the common murres at Egg Rock, scientists placed common murre decoys on the island, played common murre sounds from speakers, and placed mirrors at the site to create the illusion of movement to birds flying overhead. And the result? The murre breeding colony on Egg Rock has been restored, and has increased every year since the project’s implementation in 1996.

To read more about common murres and their restoration around Egg Rock at Devil’s Slide, check out the Bay Area Naturalist article “Social Attraction: The Story of California’s Common Murres“.

Park History

Devil’s Slide Trail is a segment that was formerly part of scenic Highway 1. Frequent landslides and closures made this a particularly troublesome segment of highway, prompting talk of opening an alternative route over Montara Mountain. Local public outcry strongly opposed the conversion of the mountain into a highway, and grassroots efforts worked to advocate for the opening of a tunnel instead. In a sweeping success, Tom Lantos Tunnels opened in 2013, protecting the mountain and allowing the scenic views of our coast to be preserved.

In 2014, the Devil’s Slide segment of Highway 1 was converted into a recreational trail for joggers, bikers, and hikers. The trail is also a part of the California Coastal Trail, which will extend 1,200 miles along the coast from Mexico to Oregon once completed.

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Sedimentary rock formation along the Devil’s Slide Trail.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is no entrance fee to enter the park. Dogs are allowed on leashes.

Here are some helpful resources to plan your visit:

Gallery

Bay Area ‘Penguins’: Common Murres

Cover photo: © Mick Thompson, 2016, some rights reserved.

Did you know that common murre eggs each have a distinct speckled pattern? This is thought to help parents recognize them in the midst of crowded breeding colonies. Learn this and more in our post about this fascinating seabird!

Cover photo: © Mick Thompson, 2016, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

 

Places to See Common Murres

Common murres look a bit like penguins.

During the breeding season (summer), common murres are mostly white in front with black on the head and rest of the body. When they are not breeding, their heads have white on the neck and cheek.

Common murres live on the west and east coasts of North America.

Out west, common murres live along the coast from California up north to Alaska. Out east, their population is mostly around the coast of Canada.

Common murres are seabirds, meaning that they spend the majority of their lives out at sea.

Common murres are seabirds, meaning that they spend almost all of their lives out at sea in search of food. They will only return to land for brief period of time in the summer to lay eggs and raise their young. The young return to the ocean when they are old enough to enter the water.

Common murres eat a variety of sea life.

Their menu includes fish, crustaceans, squid, and marine worms. They catch their meals by diving under the ocean surface, sometimes reaching depths of 150 feet.

Common murres nest on rocky cliffs and islands.

Common murres nest in colonies, meaning that multiple birds of the same species will build nests close to one another in a given area. Common murres have the most densely-packed colonies of any species for its size, and breeding birds will sometimes have other individuals touching it on all sides.

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Common murre egg; Source: Wikimedia Commons

Common murres don’t build “proper” nests; rather, they lay their egg directly on bare rock. This species lays a single egg, which has an intricate, speckled pattern and is very pointy on one end. Once the egg hatches, both parents will spend time feeding the young. At about 30 days of age, the young murre is able to enter the water. The parents spend several more weeks caring for the young bird at sea.

Common murres are very susceptible to population damage from oil spills.

By nature of being seabirds, oil spills drastically affect common murres. In the Bay Area, the 1986 Apex Houston spill and the 1998 Command spill killed thousands of birds and eliminated the population of common murres on Egg Rock at Devil’s Slide (Pacifica, Ca). Restoration of the birds at Egg Rock commenced in 1996, and the site is still being monitored today.

Common murres are one of many species affected by intense El Niño events.

El Niño events are naturally-occurring phenomena, in which the upwelling of nutrient-rich cold water is reduced relative to “normal” years. Fish depend on this cold water upwelling, as the plankton that they eat are associated with the nutrient-rich waters. El Niño events, in turn, can affect the fish populations that seabirds depend on.

Climate change is linked to more intense El Niño events, making these events much more serious. More serious El Niño events puts more strain on fish populations, and thus puts strain on the seabird populations that rely on fish.

Cool facts about common murres:

  • Scientists speculate that the reason their eggs are so pointy is to avoid them rolling off cliff edges, since the eggs are not contained in nests.
  • The intricate speckled patterns on common murre eggs are thought to act as a “fingerprint” so that eggs can be individually recognized by parents.

Resources to learn more:

Social Attraction: The Story of California’s Common Murres

Cover photo: © 2012, Tim Lenz, some rights reserved.

The story of the decline of a California seabird, and its recovery using decoy birds, speakers, and mirrors.

Cover photo: © 2012, Tim Lenz, Photo Library (Flickr), some rights reserved.

Quick Facts

  • Common murres are seabirds, spending most of their time out at sea in search for food.
  • By nature of being seabirds, murres are especially susceptible to threats to marine environments like irresponsible fishing practices and oil spills.
  • The culmination of improper fishing and oil spills dramatically decreased the population of common murres in Northern and Central California.
  • Social attraction techniques, which work to “trick” birds into returning to a nesting site, were successfully used to restore common murre populations that faced declines.
  • Common murres and other seabirds are still threatened by climate change, which are making El Niño events more intense.

 

Although tied up in a ponytail, my hair whipped back and forth in the strong breeze along the steps down to the Point Reyes Lighthouse. Despite the wind and the occasional cold gust, the site was rewarding in its incredible views of California’s coast. While hiking, I couldn’t help but catch a whiff that was undeniably seabird in origin. With my interest piqued, I scanned the coastline with my binoculars to find a colony of common murres dotting the white rocks below.

A Population in Decline

The common murre is a sleek and gorgeous seabird found on both coasts of North America. In California, murres form large breeding colonies in areas along the North and Central coast. As a seabird, the common murre spends most of its time on the water. Consequently, its time spent out in the ocean in search for food or resting make the common murre particularly susceptible to population declines from harmful marine fishing practices and marine oil spills.

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Gillnet diagram; Source: University of Michigan

The culmination of events such as these led to a serious decline in California’s common murre population. The use of gillnets, a net that forms a large, vertical wall under the ocean surface, led to entanglement and resulting decline of common murres. Oil spills, such as the 1986 Apex Houston spill and the 1998 Command spill, contributed to declines as well, killing thousands of birds and eliminated the population of common murres on Egg Rock at Devil’s Slide in Pacifica, CA.

Social Attraction Leads to a Recovery

The declines that the common murres faced called for action. In 1996, that call was met by the formation of the The Common Murre Restoration Project by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in collaboration with other organizations. The project’s primary goal was to restore the Devil’s Slide Rock population that was wiped out during the oil spill, and increase numbers of common murres and other seabirds across Central California.

This behemoth effort begs us to question — how does one simply restore a population of seabirds? As it turns out, methods to achieve this task have been developed by Dr. Stephen Kress and have proven successful in other bird populations. The method’s idea is elegant: by tricking birds into thinking that other individuals of the same species are already present at a specific location, we can incentivize the breeding birds set up their nests at that location.

These methods are termed “social attraction”, and include an entire suite of different ways to attract breeding birds back to the site. Chick placement at a specific location can work to have the growing birds imprint on the location, causing them to return to that site to breed as adults. The placement of decoys (think the fake ducks used for hunting) and speakers set up to play the calls of the target bird species can work to make it seem like birds of the species are already present at the location, enticing live birds to reside there as well. Mirrors can also be used to attract birds, as they create the illusion of movement and more individuals to birds flying overhead.

A visual of Dr. Kress’s “social attraction” techniques; Source: Audubon

Social attraction has been used in many seabird restoration projects, and has proven  time and time again to be a success (my personal favorites include Project Puffin and the Tern Restoration Project in Maine). Thus, it makes sense that these methods gave new hope to the Common Murre Restoration Project at Devil’s Slide Rock.

For the project, they placed common murre decoys on the island, played common murre sounds from speakers at the site, and placed mirrors around the area with the hopes that these would attract more birds to the site. And the result? The murre breeding colony on Devil’s Slide Rock has been increasing every year since the implementation of the social attraction techniques in 1996. The population in Point Reyes has also increased since the Common Murre Restoration Project began. Thus, the work with common murres off the coast of California is another recorded conservation success story using social attraction techniques.

A Threat Still Looms

Despite the common murre’s population recovery due to conservation efforts, threats to their population still remain.

El Niño events are naturally-occurring phenomena, in which the upwelling of nutrient-rich cold water is reduced relative to “normal” years. Fish depend on this cold water upwelling, as the plankton that they eat are associated with the nutrient-rich waters. El Niño events, in turn, can affect the fish populations which seabirds depend on.

Climate change is disturbing the natural ebb and flow that marine ecosystems experience with El Niño: climate change is linked to more intense El Niño events, making these events much more serious. More serious El Niño events puts more strain on fish populations, and as a consequence puts strain on the seabird populations that rely on those fish. The common murre is just one of those seabirds affected – a call to action for our entire planet to heed attention to the serious danger that climate change poses to all life on Earth.

In light of this, it becomes increasingly important each day to think critically about conservation concerns that our local species are facing – especially in light of the world’s changing climate. That said, it is also important to stop and smell the roses with conservation successes, for hope from these sweet victories are what drive present and future generations of activists.

In that moment at Point Reyes, gazing out at the rocky coast dotted with loud murres, I felt the surge of awe and excitement that comes with a bird that’s made an incredible comeback. I truly stopped to smell the roses, but in this case, it smelled like fish, salt, and seabird.

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© 2010, Allen Shimada, NOAA Photo Library (Flickr), some rights reserved.

Sources

Watch Elk and Gray Whales at Point Reyes National Seashore

Inverness, Ca – Ever hear of a place where you can see migrating gray whales and a common murre colony, all while climbing down a dramatic 308-step staircase to a lighthouse? Here we have the Point Reyes Lighthouse in a nutshell.

Species to Look Out For

Common murre circle

Common Murre

About the Park

Inverness, Ca – National Seashore

Science Spotlight: Common Murres at Point Reyes

Point Reyes National Seashore has recorded nearly 490 species of birds – over 50% of the birds found in North America. This makes the area the most species-diverse park in America’s National Park System.

When hiking down to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, Dan and I caught a whiff of a smell on the breeze that brought me back to my summers spent monitoring nesting herring gulls. The smell was distinctively… seabird. Naturally, this piqued my interest. We stopped for a moment at one of the lookout sites, and within minutes found a colony of common murres in the distance.

Common murres are the most abundant nesting seabird found off the coast of north and central California, and several colonies make their home at Point Reyes National Seashore. In the mid-1980’s, the common murre suffered a severe population decline due to entanglement in fishing nets and the culmination of several oil spills along California’s central coast. Murre restoration projects have brought rising numbers and hope to the species populations, but they remain threatened by the consequences of a changing climate.

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© 2010,Allen Shimada, NOAA Photo Library (Flickr), some rights reserved.

Park History

The Coast Miwok Native Americans occupied the area that we know now as Point Reyes for thousands of years. The first known European explorer to visit the area was Sir Francis Drake, who arrived to Point Reyes in 1579.

The Point Reyes Lighthouse, constructed in 1870, rests at the second foggiest place in North America. The lighthouse was replaced with an automated light in 1975, but it still remains as a museum piece with the National Park Service.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is no entrance fee to enter the park. Dogs are allowed on leashes.

With a total of 71,028 acres of protected land, you’ll certainly take a long time to run out of places to explore at Point Reyes. The Tule elk, a subspecies of elk only found in California, can sometimes be seen on the sides of roads or on grassy hillsides. We recommend completing the 1+ mile hike down to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, which offers seasonal views of common murres and gray whales. That said, anywhere you go will be rich in wildlife and scenic views.

Please note that during whale watching season (late December to mid-April), the main road to the lighthouse is closed to private vehicles. Be sure to check the shuttle information if you plan on visiting during that time.

Here are some helpful resources to plan your visit:

 Gallery