Finding the Marbled Murrelet | get out

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Earlier this year I celebrated a major birthday – well, “survived” might be the best word. It was one of those milestones that falls on the other side of middle age, where it’s much harder to convince yourself that the crackling sounds you hear when you push yourself up out of your plush recliner come from your furniture and not your facet joints. As my birthday approached, I was excited, sure, but also resigned, maybe even a little grumpy. So what did I do? Go bird watching, of course.

And not just any birding: I consulted avian expert and local guide Rob Fowler and we agreed I needed a live bird – one I had never seen and identified before – to mark the occasion. After weighing a few candidates, the one we chose was the Marbled Murrelet, a small bird with big challenges — and with a secret life that makes it unique.

The Marbled Murrelet is an alcid, a family of seabirds that includes puffins, auklets and guillemots. But while other alcids nest on cliffs or rocky coastal islands, the Marbled Murrelet nests in trees, laying a single egg on the moss-covered branch of an old redwood or Douglas fir. The male and female take turns incubating the egg and travel up to 30 miles to the ocean to provide fish for their speckled chick. Their breeding plumage of brown “mottled” with white is the perfect camouflage for their nest in the forest canopy.

Although listed as endangered in California since 1992, these robin-sized birds continue to reside in moderate numbers here on the coast, and there are a few places to reliably find them. Yet somehow, in two decades of birdwatching in Humboldt, I had failed to find a single one. I was challenged by the guillemots.

When the big day arrived, Fowler and I met three other birders and set off north. Although the morning started shrouded in fog, the further we went the more blue skies we found, with sunlight falling in dazzling columns through the canopy of redwoods. Holes in the trees framed breathtaking views of the endless Pacific. I had seen it all before, but suddenly everything about where I lived felt exciting and new.

Our first stop was just north of Freshwater Lagoon. We scanned the ocean with goggles and binoculars for Marbled Murrelets, which are black and white in winter and often swim in pairs away from shore. The wind was cold and high swells capped with white foam were crashing on the beach. An American Grebe surfed the waves, a good bird but not the one we were looking for. The same was true of a flock of black scoters, striking sea ducks with coal-black plumage and orange knobs on their beaks. We tried two other places in various places to the south with no success.

After a few hours without a murrelet, we found ourselves at a pullout on Scenic Drive. Our cliff top vantage point gave us a panoramic view of calmer waters. Not far from the shore was a rocky islet covered in common guillemots, hundreds of them circling the rock like a swarm of insects. While the rest of us were ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the masses of murres, Fowler peered out into the ocean and suddenly announced, “Marbled murres in reach!” And there they were: two little black and white birds swimming in the waves.

We picked up a few more great birds before heading to Vista Point in McKinleyville for a party with cake, ice cream and other amazing views. It was an unforgettable birthday.

In the weeks that followed, however, this unusual and mysterious bird was often on my mind. Despite its protected status, Marbled Murrelet numbers have continued to decline at an alarming rate. The once huge tracts of old-growth forest that provided a safe haven for its towering nests have been cut down relentlessly; what remains are fractured thickets found mostly in state and national parks, leaving the murre vulnerable to the kind of predators that follow humans and their trash into parks. The specter of extinction is a heartbreaking possibility.

Amid the overwhelming crises that continue to rock our world, the fate of a tiny seabird seems almost insignificant. It’s just a bird, after all. Most people have never even heard of it.

But it is important. Every bird counts. And if we can stick together and find a way to save this bird, then maybe we’ll have what it takes to solve these other problems, big and small.

I’m told that during breeding season Marbled Murrelets leave their nests at dawn and fly out to the Pacific Ocean, their piercing cries piercing the early morning silence. My dream is that when my next milestone arrives, I will celebrate it by listening to those calls ringing through the tall trees at the first light of day, in greater numbers than ever before. And that we, as stewards of this planet, will continue to do what is necessary to ensure that this little bird always finds a place to nest 150 feet in the sky, and that inaction and indifference be replaced by something more lasting: hope.

And that there will be more cake.

Sarah Hobart (her) is a freelance writer based in Humboldt County.

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