Living among some of Earth’s most extraordinary seabirds

Scott Doggett wild neighbors
Posted 6/12/24

One of the most extraordinary birds on Earth shares the Olympic Peninsula with us but there's a good chance you're unfamiliar with it.

 That's because the Marbled Murrelet is grueling to …

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Living among some of Earth’s most extraordinary seabirds


One of the most extraordinary birds on Earth shares the Olympic Peninsula with us but there's a good chance you're unfamiliar with it.

 That's because the Marbled Murrelet is grueling to observe. Dividing its time between land and ocean, the dove-sized seabird is quick to dive under water or to fly evasively when it senses danger at sea. On land, it dons camouflage and hides high in trees.

 While most seabirds nest on rocky offshore islands so they can reproduce where land predators don't exist and where they have easy access to prey, the Marbled Murrelet evolved 10 million years ago to exploit the interior "islands" of old-growth forests.

 A highly risk-averse bird, it seeks out the tallest trees at the center of the biggest stands from Santa Barbara to Alaska to avoid land predators as well as jays, falcons and ravens hunting at forest's edge. The trees they favor include Giant Sequoias in California and legacy Western redcedars on the Olympic Peninsula.

 During the breeding season, the murrelets nest on mossy branches far up the colossal trees, located miles inland. Contrast this behavior with other members of the auk family such as murres, puffins and guillemots, which nest on rocky offshore islands, typically near rich feeding grounds.

 Also separating Marbled Murrelets from other seabirds is their cryptic coloration. When in the forest to breed, the murrelets shed their dark-brown and white sea feathers for mottled plumage that allows them to blend in. (Think chameleon, except that a chameleon can change appearance much quicker.) The brown and white feathers return when the birds return to sea for the nonbreeding season.

 Like most seabirds, Marbled Murrelets raise their young during the summer, when the days are longer, the weather is warmer, and the forage fish are plentiful — conditions that facilitate breeding. Beyond that, breeding is tough duty for murrelet parents.

 The female murrelet lays one egg a year, an egg that ranges from creamy white to pale sea green and is the size of a chicken's egg. The parents incubate the egg in 24-hour shifts, with the untethered bird flying to the ocean to forage for itself.

 Once the egg hatches, the parents take turns flying to the ocean to feed themselves and to bring back fish that the hatchling swallows whole. After a month, the chick receives one last meal before it is abandoned high in a tree without a single practice flight.

 As the sun sets and with no parent around to guide it, the chick flies from the nest with gusto, darting through dense forest as if it's been doing it all its life as it heads to sea — sometimes as far as 50 miles over land before seeing surf. Once it lands it is entirely on its own, unlike some seabirds that are aided by parents for weeks or even months.

 To quote John Piatt, a research scientist with the U.S. Department of the Interior who has 45 years' experience studying seabirds: "It is extraordinary that they now must master the skills of locating prey aggregations, and then diving hundreds of times a day to capture dozens of fish every single day, to satisfy a metabolic demand that requires eating more than half its body mass every day just to survive."

 "Imagine if you had to eat half your body mass in food every day, and not from take-outs or supermarkets. It is a freaking incredible fact of seabird lives," he told me the other day. "By comparison, humans only need approximately 4% of their body mass a day, whales only 1% to 2% of their body mass a day, and large groundfish like Cod only 0.2% body mass a day."

 If the murrelet manages to lead a full life, it will live 15 years or so.

But the Marbled Murrelets in Washington are in trouble. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife website has only this to say about the threats to the species: "The Marbled Murrelet population in Washington is low and declining. Because of its breeding association with old forests, their populations have been severely affected by loss of mature and old forest habitat. Food resources in the marine environment may also influence population status."

 That's a gross understatement of the dangers facing the murrelets, according to Karen Sullivan, a retired biologist who rose to the high-ranking position of Assistant Director for External Affairs, Alaska Region, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

 As a retiree, Sullivan speaks frankly. "The Marbled Murrelet is circling the drain," she said three times during a two-hour interview.

 During our chat and in a position paper she presented to the USFWS last year that detailed the myriad threats to Washington's Marbled Murrelets (unfortunately, they aren't faring any better in California or Oregon), Sullivan offered a litany of reasons why the lovely seabirds are likely headed for extinction in The Evergreen State by 2050. 

Topping the list is the reality that the state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is at the beck and call of the timber industry and that the timber industry wants to cut down Washington's remaining old-growth forests.

By way of example, Sullivan noted that the DNR recently removed protections on older forests under its control and that as a result, 15,000 acres of Washington's legacy forests were logged between May and December of 2022.

 These are the same forests upon which the state's Marbled Murrelets depend for breeding. Clearly, the DNR should no longer permit logging of old-growth forests on its land, Sullivan said. She noted that only 4% of the old-growth forests that existed in Washington 150 years ago exist today.

 But a logging ban would not be sufficient to save the state's Marbled Murrelets, she added, because the birds spend 80% of their lives in the Salish Sea and there they confront the U.S. Navy's deafening Growler overflights and in-water explosives use.

 The way to prevent the Navy from sending lethal shock waves into water occupied by Marbled Murrelets is through creation of a marine national monument in the Salish Sea, she said.

 Marine national monuments, or MNMs, are created by presidential proclamation. Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama and Biden created, expanded or restored marine MNMs. President Trump's only involvement with one was to open the Atlantic's sole MNM to commercial fishing.

 Scott Doggett is a former staff writer for the Outdoors section of the Los Angeles Times. He and his wife, Susan, live in Port Townsend.