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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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.

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