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

Mysterious Declines: The American Kestrel

Cover photo: © Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith, 2007, some rights reserved.

Learn about North America’s smallest falcon and its mysterious decline across the United States.

Cover photo: © Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith, 2007, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Places to See American Kestrels

Pearson-Arastradero Circle

Pearson-Arastradero Preserve

American kestrels are experiencing declines throughout the United States, including coastal California.

Data from the Peregrine Fund’s American Kestrel Partnership suggest that the coastal California population has been experiencing declines since the 1960’s.

Scientists do not know the “one true cause” of kestrel declines in the United States; rather, they believe that multiple causes could be working together to depress populations. Possible causes include habitat loss, the use of neonicotinoid insecticides, and local threats from the use of anticoagulant rat poisons.

Many local organizations are working to construct artificial kestrel nesting boxes to help the numbers in their area. For more information on how to construct a kestrel nesting box, check out this page by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch.

American kestrels are North America’s smallest falcon.

They are about the size of a mourning dove, measuring in at 8.7 – 12.2 inches in length. Male American kestrels have beautiful slate-blue wings and rusty backs/tails. Females, on the other hand, are more subtly-beautiful – they have rusty wings and backs. Both males and females have black “slashes” on their faces.

You can often recognize American kestrels by looking for a bobbing head or tail. This charming behavior makes these birds distinctive on telephone wires, even at a distance.

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Male American kestrel; Source: © Matthew Buynoski, 2018, all rights reserved.

American kestrels eat large insects, small reptiles and amphibians, and even the occasional small bird.

American kestrels are raptors, meaning that they subdue and kill their prey using their feet. They hunt by swooping down on small prey and grabbing it in their talons.

Kestrels will sometimes cache, or store, extra food to keep it for later consumption or hide it from other animals.

American kestrels are secondary cavity-nesters, meaning that they build their nests in cavities excavated by other animals.

Once established at their nest site, female kestrels lay 4 – 6 eggs that are incubated by both parents. After about a month, the eggs hatch. The young and the female are fed by the male for a couple of weeks, after which the female leaves and begins to forage as well. The young begin to fly about a month after hatching.

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American kestrel at Pearson-Arastradero Preserve; Source: © Matthew Buynoski, 2018, all rights reserved.

Cool facts about American kestrels:

  • American kestrels are also known as “sparrow hawks” or “mousers”.
  • Only the northern populations of American kestrels migrate south during the winter. Central and southern populations are permanent residents.
  • American kestrels have a very distinct and excitable call, making these birds easy to locate by sound. To hear the American kestrel call, check out this page.

Resources to learn more:

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Male American kestrel in flight; Source: © Matthew Buynoski, 2018, all rights reserved.

Explore Salt Ponds and Marsh at Alviso Marina County Park

Alviso, Ca – Connect with a site that’s a part of one of the largest tidal marsh restoration projects on the west coast. Alviso Marina County Park was formerly an industry-dominated site, but now serves as an amazing entrance to the greater Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

About the Park

Alviso, Ca – Santa Clara County Park 

Science Spotlight: Leopard Sharks at Alviso

When I first learned that there were actual sharks around Alviso, I was in total shock. To me, the idea of the perfect habitat for sharks had always been the open ocean. Thus, you can imagine my surprise when I learned that the area is home to leopard sharks.

Leopard sharks are the most common sharks in the San Francisco Bay estuary, with a range that extends from Oregon to Mexico. They can grow to lengths of up to 7 feet, and feed on invertebrates and fish. To feed, they make a daily migration to shallow areas during high tides.

The San Francisco Bay Area lost much of the tidal marsh and shallow areas utilized by the leopard sharks to development for harvesting salt. As these tidal marshes are restored, researchers are finding that the leopard sharks are returning.

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Leopard shark; Source: © Nathan Rupert, 2009, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Park History

Visiting Alviso truly feels like a blast into the past: on your way to the park, you pass by an old cannery site, the warehouses, and a Victorian-style home. The area that is now Alviso Marina County Park used to be receive drainage rich in mercury from the New Almaden Mining District. The site also used to be a heavily-trafficked port area supplying San Jose and a launching point for steamboat passage to San Francisco. When these operations shut down, the area was transformed into salt ponds for salt harvest, operated by the Cargill Salt Company.

The area is now rich with wildlife, providing a feeding and nesting area for many species of birds. Alviso Marina County Park has become a part of the nearby Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Today, the area is part of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project (SBSPRP), one of the largest tidal marsh restoration projects on the west coast. Restoration offers new habitat for California wildlife and offers visitors the chance to see nature reclaiming a formerly industry-dominated area.

For more detailed information on the history of Alviso Marina County Park, check out this article by the Mercury News.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is no entrance fee to enter the park. Dogs are now allowed on trails or walkways. For more detailed information on where dogs are and aren’t allowed, check out the park map.

Alviso Marina County Park serves as the entrance to the greater Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. We encourage you to explore that area as well, time permitting.

Here are some helpful resources to plan your visit:

Gallery

 

Colorful Corvid: The Yellow-billed Magpie

Cover photo: © Marcel Holyoak, 2011, some rights reserved.

Did you know that our site logo is a yellow-billed magpie? Learn more about why we chose this stunning bird.

Cover photo: © Marcel Holyoak, 2011, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Yellow-billed magpies are the inspiration for Bay Area Naturalist’s logo as bright, personable birds that are only found along California’s coasts and Central Valley. While their restricted range makes them very special to see, it also makes them susceptible to the threats that climate change poses to our planet’s life. They inhabit open oak woodlands – a specialized habitat that could mean that this species will not be able to adapt well to changes brought about by our changing climate.

For more information on why we chose the yellow-billed magpie as our logo, check out our Site Logo page.

Yellow-billed magpies are found in California’s Central Valley and along the coast.

This species is endemic to California, meaning that they are only found in our state. Its range is quite restricted, covering an area just 500 miles long and 150 miles wide. They are found in open oak woodland habitats, usually near bodies of water.

Although they’re not found in the heart of the Bay Area, they can be seen in parts of the East and South Bay. Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve and Joseph D. Grant County Park are excellent places to see yellow-billed magpies in the Bay Area.

Yellow-billed magpies have a diverse diet.

They eat insects, fruits, seeds, and will scavenge for food. They have also been known to be kleptoparasitic, or steal food from other animals.

Yellow-billed magpies construct large, dome-shaped nests.

Often found on oak limbs, their nests are lined with mud on the inside. They nest in colonies of 3 to 30 pairs that maintain loose association with one another. They lay 5-8 eggs on average.

The female incubates the eggs, sustained by food brought from the male. After 18 days of incubation, the young hatch. Both of the parents will participate in feeding and caring for the offspring.

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Yellow-billed magpie nest; Source: DavisWiki

Yellow-billed magpies were hit hard by West Nile Virus.

In 2004 when West Nile Virus established itself in California, yellow-billed magpie populations suffered. It is estimated that the virus killed half of their population in just two years. Habitat loss and pesticide-use also threaten this species.

Cool facts about yellow-billed magpies:

  • The oldest yellow-billed magpie ever found was just shy of 10 years old.

Resources to learn more:

Treetops to the Ocean: Marbled Murrelets

Cover photo: © Aaron Maizlish, 2017, some rights reserved.

Marbled murrelets are full of surprises – defying all expectations of a seabird, they nest high up in redwood trees. Learn about their nest discovery in 1974 and their close ties with coast redwoods.

Cover photo: © Aaron Maizlish, 2017, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Places to See Marbled Murrelets

Marbled murrelets are seabirds.

By nature of being seabirds, murrelets spend the majority of their lives out at sea in search of food. They eat mostly fish and crustaceans.

Marbled murrelets are very unique amongst seabirds in that they nest high up in redwood trees.

Most other seabirds, including their close cousins puffins and murres, nest on rocky cliffs along the shore. The marbled murrelet defies all expectations of a seabird by nesting high up in redwood trees. They will sometimes travel 30 miles inland to nest.

Their solitary nests up in old-growth trees makes them very difficult to find – a tactic that’s thought to help discourage predation. Parents will also only fly to the nest to switch who’s incubating or to feed young very early in the morning or late at night to avoid detection by predators.

Marbled murrelets are different colors in the breeding and non-breeding season to camouflage with their different habitats.

Marbled murrelets are small, robin-sized birds. They are black on top and white on bottom during the non-breeding season (any time when they’re not attracting mates or nesting).

Marbled murrelets adopt mottled brown plumage during the breeding season – a unique transition that’s not found among their close relatives. This brownish color is thought to help them camouflage with the redwood trees that they nest in.

Marbled murrelets live along the northwest coast of the United States.

Their range extends from southeastern Alaska to northern California.

The marbled murrelet is listed by the state of California as endangered.

In Oregon and Washington, the species is listed as threatened. Factors such as habitat loss, predation by other birds (namely Steller’s jays), and low food availability have affected their population.

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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.

In many California state and national parks, you’ll notice a campaign urging visitors to keep their space “crumb clean”. This movement is to discourage the number of Steller’s jays and other scavenging birds that are attracted to food that people leave behind.

Why be worried about attracting Steller’s jays, when it’s a charismatic and attractive bird? Well, in addition to eating human leftovers, Steller’s jays will also eat the eggs and young of other birds. One such species is the marbled murrelet, whose numbers are negatively affected by Steller’s jay predation.

Cool facts about marbled murrelets:

  • The marbled murrelet’s nest was discovered in 1974 by accident, when a tree climber in Santa Cruz stumbled upon its nest.
  • Marbled murrelets are the most recent species to have their nest discovered in North America.
  • Marbled murrelets are also known as “fog larks”, since their keer-keer call was heard early in the morning high up in redwood forests. It wasn’t until their nest was discovered in the 1970’s that people put together who was vocalizing.

Resources to learn more:

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.

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