The Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet

For decades, mystery swirling around a tiny seabird kept the birding community guessing: Where did the marbled murrelet make its nest and rear its young? It had long been surmised that the marbled murrelet’s nesting habits were unlike those of other pelagic species. It did not form dense colonies on islands or coastal cliffs. It did not dig bur-rows into turf, or lay its eggs precariously balanced on the narrow ledges of sea stacks. Although we knew where it didn’t nest, proof of where the marbled murrelet did lay its eggs remained tantalizingly out of reach. When it came to nesting, the marbled murrelet just seemed to… vanish.

Cracking the Case

The clues to solving this puzzle could have been lifted right out of a Nancy Drew novel:

  • Loud calls ringing in old-growth forests along the Pacific coast, from British Columbia to northern California—calls that didn’t sound anything like the usual forest dwellers.
  • Persistent rumors of a mys-tery bird that locals called the “foglark.”
  • Brief sightings of small fast-flying shapes darting across the dawn sky.
  • The murrelet’s cryptic breeding plumage—mottled chocolate-brown—that apparently mimicked a particular background, against which an incubating bird would be camouflaged, … but which back-ground could that be?
  • Fragments of eggshell found beneath a giant redwood tree. (One can imagine Nancy Drew kneeling over the bits of shell and murmuring, “Hrnm, what have we here?”)

Ornithologists and amateur birders alike were keen to solve this mystery. In 1971, in fact, the National Audubon Society offered a $100 reward to whomever found the first documented nest of the marbled murrelet.

But in the end, it wasn’t a girl detective who cracked the case. The honor of “first discovery” went to a forester who scaled a Douglas fir in California’s Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the 1970s and accidentally found—148 feet off the ground—the nest of a marbled murrelet. The find sent a shock wave through the birding community, because it seemed so out of character. There had been suspicions. But, a seabird that nests in old-growth forests? What a revelation.

Of Foglarks and Ancient Trees

Once the secret was out, the scientific fieldwork began; to date, more than 160 nests have been studied. Through careful observation, we now know that marbled murrelets nest in old-growth coniferous forests as far as 30 miles inland, and that their breeding season extends from April to late August.

Marbled murrelets do not build nests, as such. They simply choose a mossy, horizontal limb, and then use their bodies to form a depression into which they lay a single egg. A rare few “nests” are found on the ground. Both the male and female share in the incubation of the egg for about 30 days, trading off every 24 hours. The change-over takes place at dawn, when the absent partner returns from feeding in shallow offshore waters and announces its arrival with excited, high-pitched notes of keer keer keer — the clarion call of the “foglark.”

Two days after hatching, the chick can be left alone while both parents gather shrimp and small fish to provide morning, noon, and evening feedings. At about one month of age, the chick attempts its first solo flight to the sea to feed on its own.

Survival rate is low, although a marbled murrelet can live up to 25 years. Threats include oil spills, fishing nets, and the loss of old-growth forests. Because of shared habitat, the ultimate fate of the marbled murrelet is linked with that of the spotted owl, giving us one more reason to protect ancient trees.

Earning the Bird

My history with the marbled murrelet goes back to my student days at the University of Washington in Seattle. To help pay for college books and tuition, I worked three summers in Alaska’s fishing industry, twice at a salmon cannery on Kodiak Island and one season on a crab processor at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians.

There were plentiful seabirds at both locations, and I look back on those days with a twinge of regret. Although I have always loved birds, I wasn’t a serious birder at that time, and so missed many opportunities to identify and list species that are difficult to see elsewhere. A marbled murrelet swimming right by the cannery dock would have caught my eye, but I wouldn’t have known what it was. I had not yet graduated to the level of interest and curiosity that inspires one to buy binoculars and a field guide and start learning names.

A few years later, I did rise to that level of interest and ticked my lifer marbled murrelet while on a pelagic trip off the coast of Washington State. I really had to work for that bird: The boat was rocking, my binoculars were smeared with salt spray, and the little shape on the water kept either diving out of sight or flying off into the distance. But, in the end, I got a good ID, and I had an epiphany on that trip: I like birding when it’s difficult, when I have to earn the bird the hard way.

I’ve seen many marbled murrelets since then, but always out on the water, never on their nesting grounds. However, after reading Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet, by Maria M. Ruth (2005, Rodale Books), I knew I had to witness a certain phenomenon for myself. I had to stand in the California redwoods at dawn and listen for foglarks.

Waiting in the Dark

One of the best places to witness the dawn fly-in of the marbled murrelet is Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, adjacent to the Murrelet State Wilderness. I planned my visit for mid-June, spending the night before at a motel about 20 minutes north of the park.

I was up well before dawn the next day, and, fortified with coffee, drove to Prairie Creek and parked beside a vast meadow surrounded with giant trees. I rolled down my windows, turned off the engine, and doused my headlights. And then, in the dark—there was no moon—I waited for those enigmatic birds to make an appearance.

During the next couple of hours, only two other vehicles passed by. Other than that, I had the place to myself and was able to soak up the nighttime atmosphere without distraction.

One thing immediately stood out: In comparison with a tropical rain forest at night, the redwood forest—this one, at least—was absolutely silent. I heard no rustling of leaves, no mysterious squeaks in the brush, no incessant sawing-chirping-buzzing of insects. The silence of Prairie Creek was both restful and, I’ll admit, a bit spooky.

As the faint light of dawn began creeping into the sky, I got out of the car and stood beside a split-rail fence, straining my ears and scanning the sky for fast-flying silhouettes. The “early birds” began murmuring here and there: Song sparrow, spotted towhee, Swainson’s thrush. But no alcid voices split the air, and I began to fret that the murrelets were not going to appear after all. Birding can be like that: You plan, you wait, and then the bird stands you up.

But, not this time.

Because suddenly, there they were, three rapidly flying shapes—“footballs on whirring wings”—arcing across the sky and saturating the meadow with their loud, penetrating, and utterly wild seabird calls.

Keer keer keer!

They flew so fast, on such direct and purposeful paths toward the forest, I could not track them with my binoculars. At such moments, when in the presence of a living mystery—this little bird that had kept us guessing for decades—you lower your bins, let your senses soak up the experience, and hope with all your heart that you will remember this rare adventure for the rest of your life.

Close Encounter with ‘Just Another Foglark’

Soon another murrelet ripped across the sky, and then two more. I could hear excited chattering among the trees as the adults fed their young.

By then, there was enough light in the meadow to reveal another secret. What a surprise to see, a mere 50 feet from my car, five bedded-down Roosevelt elk, enormous bulls with impressive antlers. They had been there all along, yet I had neither seen nor heard them.

This close encounter was the perfect finale to my marbled murrelet adventure, and it made me think: If I could fail to notice the proximity of animals as big as elk—even taking into account that it was dark—it is easier to understand how the little marbled murrelet, with its secretive pre-dawn activities high in the canopy, eluded us for so long.

It took time and hard evidence to get to know this bird and to stretch our minds into accepting what was once unimaginable: That a seabird had evolved to nest on the branch of a redwood tree. Until that happened, those eerie dawn calls had been chalked up to “just another foglark.”


What to Look and Listen For

A chunky North Pacific seabird with a short neck, the marbled murrelet is about 9.5 inches in length. It is in the auk family, Alcidae, and has a small, slender, black bill and long, narrow, sharply pointed wings. Males and females are identical. In breeding plumage (April through September), they are mottled dark brown, with slightly paler underparts, neck, and sides of the head. From October through March, they are black and white: Crown, nape, and wings are black. Look for a dark eye patch and an incomplete dark breast band. Belly and underparts are white, and a white collar is obvious. It flies with rapid wingbeats at a wide range of elevations. At sea it is often seen floating, head back and tail cocked.

Although it is most vocal at dawn while nesting, it is noisier than most alcids at sea. It also vocalizes in flight. Its most common call is a high-pitched keer, keer, keer. Less commonly, it whistles and groans.

Where and When to Look

Marbled murrelets can be found along rocky Pacific coasts from the Aleutian Islands to central California year-round, usually within three miles of the shoreline, and often in protected waters, especially in winter. Migration is not well understood for this species.

Breeding habitat is in mature and old-growth coastal forests as far as 45 miles inland. Trees, primarily conifers, must have large, flat branches that are often moss-covered. They nest less commonly on the ground on talus slopes and cliffs.

Feeding Behavior

Small schooling fish, krill, and other crustaceans are the marbled murrelet’s dietary staples. They feed in protected bays and fjords and sometimes in freshwater lakes. They often forage in duos that are not necessarily mated pairs. Perhaps to minimize long-distance food runs, they deliver larger fish to their nestling than they typically consume themselves. Marbled murrelets dive more than 150 feet below the water surface and fly underwater. Their body shape and wing shape allow for agile and rapid pursuit of prey.

Courtship and Nesting Behavior

Little is known about the marbled murrelet’s pair bond, but the species is presumed to be socially monogamous. Courtship begins in early spring with a pair display that involves synchronized swimming and posturing. Nesting can begin from March through July. The female lays one greenish egg with dark spots, usually on a mossy branch of a tall conifer. Both parents share incubation duties, each for a 24-hour shift that ends just before dawn. Incubation lasts 28 to 30 days. Hatchlings are semiprecocial and covered with brown-spotted yellow down. Parents brood for only a day or two, then bring a fish to their offspring between 1 and 8 times a day. Nestlings grow rapidly and fledge when they are 27 to 40 days old and at 60 to 70 percent of their adult weight. It is thought that chicks fly directly from the nest to the ocean. Parental care ends at this time.—Dawn Hewitt

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