The marbled murrelet is the star of this weekend's Wings Over The Basin festival, a celebration of songbirds, owls and other winged creatures at Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
By Molly Lautamo
July 30, 2014—The marbled murrelet’s nesting habits could very well still be top secret today, were it not for an observant tree surgeon by the name of Hoyt Foster. While 150 feet up in an old Douglas fir in Big Basin Redwoods State Park on Aug. 7, 1974, Foster came upon a fuzzy chick ... with webbed feet. Rather than shrugging his shoulders and continuing his work, Foster scratched his head and thought it wise to notify park staff of this strange little bird.
The robin-sized marbled murrelet is a secretive bird whose nesting sites stumped ornithologists for decades. Other alcids or auks (the bird family that includes puffins) make their nests in ocean cliffsides or underground burrows, but years of searching up in the rocks and down in the dirt had revealed no sign of this cryptic bird. Forest biologist Steve Singer explains, “[The marbled murrelet] was the only bird known to regularly breed in North America whose nest site had not yet been discovered ... It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.” With Hoyt’s discovery, the first needle was found, and it pointed toward the necessity of preserving the last remaining stands of old-growth redwood forest.
Next week marks the 40th anniversary of this discovery. In honor of the historic day, Big Basin is putting on a three-day festival this weekend celebrating the marbled murrelet, along with other winged creatures found in the park like owls, songbirds and butterflies. Wings Over The Basin promises three full days of fun for amateur and seasoned birders alike, but you may wonder: Why all the fuss over such a small, elusive bird?
Murrelet's Quest for The Perfect Nest
The marbled murrelet is a fascinating creature. This seabird spends most of the year out on the ocean, only coming inland to nest during late spring and summer. It flies at lightning-fast speeds of 50 to 100 miles per hour, directly from the ocean to the old-growth stands of redwoods and Douglas firs (or, farther north, Sitka spruces), never setting foot on terra firma.
It searches for a nest site only in forests with trees 200 years or older. The branch must be wide enough to ensure the egg doesn’t roll off the edge, and it must be at least 100 feet (preferably 150 feet) above ground, where the moss has gathered over the years to form a soft, warm nest.
Sound persnickety? Well, consider this: it probably makes sense to put a lot of time and effort into finding the perfect nest site when you only lay one egg per year. Yep, you read that right. This endangered species—numbering 358,000 to 418,000 worldwide, with an estimated 730 birds in the Santa Cruz Mountains (although, according to Singer, this number is more likely closer to 400)—has just one chance per year to reproduce, so the parents had better pick a safe nesting spot.
‘Like A Baby Walking to The Fridge And Making Herself A Sandwich'
Once the nesting site is chosen, the female lays her one egg, and she and the male take turns incubating it and flying up to 50 miles to the ocean—15 miles for those birds nesting in Big Basin—to forage for food. After the egg has hatched, the murrelet chick has 30 days before it’s time to go out on her own. When the day comes for the chick to fledge, she has to rely on instinct alone to know what to do.
First, the chick twists her neck left and right, plucking out all her downy feathers, revealing juvenile plumage underneath. Her parents haven't brought her any fish for breakfast today, and this chick is hungry. With no choice but to leave home, starve or die of predation, the seabird steps to the edge with her webbed feet ... and takes her first flight from the redwoods to the sea.
“I liken it to a 6-month-old baby all of a sudden standing up, walking to the fridge and making herself a sandwich,” says Susan Blake, head interpreter at Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
It is quite an impressive feat, but it can only occur if the chick doesn’t get eaten by a corvid first.
Corvids are birds like jays, crows and ravens, and their populations have increased exponentially at Big Basin. These birds are generalists, which means they eat pretty much anything that’s available to them, including the food we leave out at campsites around the park. This easily accessible food attracts the corvids, who eventually discover the marbled murrelet nest sites. Before you know it, murrelet eggs and chicks become their favorite snack.
The Crumb Clean Campaign
Rather than shut down the park to messy human eaters, Big Basin staff decided to do what they do best: educate campers about the fragile ecosystem outside their tents.
The park has been educating the public for years about how feeding wildlife and leaving out trash affects the animals that call Big Basin home, but it was the Crumb Clean Campaign that really made a difference for the murrelet. Alex Takone, Big Basin Park ranger and leader of the Crumb Clean Campaign (launched by Big Basin two years ago and since adopted by Butano State Park, Portola Redwoods State Park, Memorial County Park and the Redwood National And State Parks), remembers the lack of awareness just one year ago.
“I led a campfire program last year and asked how many people in the audience had heard of the marbled murrelet. Three people raised their hands. This year, I asked the same question and the entire audience stuck their hands in the air.”
This degree of awareness is now prevalent throughout the park on any given day. Upon check-in at headquarters, staff educates campers about the endangered marbled murrelet and requires them to sign a “Crumb Clean Commitment” to ensure visitors understand the importance of cleaning up after themselves in the park.
You also can’t avoid the brightly colored stickers and signs plastered on every trash receptacle, picnic table, food locker and bulletin board. Even the snacks for sale at the park store are adorned with stickers: “Do YOUR Part to Protect the Endangered Murrelet! Leave no crumbs!”
How To Trick A Corvid
Scientists are actively studying the corvids in order to better understand their impact on marbled murrelets. Portia Halbert, an environmental scientist with California State Parks, is part of an experiment that uses decoy eggs in an effort to decrease corvid predation on real marbled murrelet eggs. Laced with a chemical called Carbachol, the eggs cause the corvids to vomit or feel ill.
It doesn’t cause any long-term harm to the jays and ravens, but in the same way that you never want to set eyes again on the restaurant where the tuna burger gave you food poisoning, the corvids (hopefully) will never want to visit a marbled murrelet’s nest again.
Halbert has seen a significant decrease in the number of decoy eggs eaten by the corvids, but it’s still too soon to determine if this experiment is helping the marbled murrelet. Halbert is hopeful that the bird will survive the odds, and she believes strongly that we all have a responsibility to help save this species.
“Life on earth as we know it has changed, and I believe in the importance and value of biodiversity,” she says. “The marbled murrelet population has drastically decreased as a direct result of humans. We have the ability, opportunity and the responsibility to bring these birds back.”
More Than Jays And Ravens to Blame
Marbled murrelets face many threats besides corvid predation. Every year more of their habitat, which extends from California to Alaska, is lost to logging, while oil spills threaten their main food source and gill nets entangle them as they dive for fish. In addition, climate change and ocean pollution are altering both the birds’ coastal and inland habitats.
Big Basin docent Karen DeMello, responsible for the first Wings Over The Basin festival, is optimistic for the fate of her favorite bird, despite the odds. When asked if there’s hope for the murrelet, she likes to tell visitors the story of the clapper rail. The population of this ground-nesting California marsh bird drastically decreased to what scientists assumed were unsustainable levels due to hunting, development and predation by non-native red foxes.
“People in the early 1900s thought the clapper rail was destined to go the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon, but here we are a decade later, and the clapper rail still exists.”
DeMello offered to show me the tree where Hoyt Foster discovered the very first nest. As we walked towards the famous tree, she stopped periodically to pick up trash—a true advocate for the Crumb Clean Campaign.
We reached the Douglas fir located close to headquarters in Jay Camp and had to walk back 100 feet to take in its incredible height. A silver plate, 150 feet above us, caught the sunlight marking the first discovered nest site. Squinting up at the spot through my binoculars, I marveled that the nest was ever found.
We probably wouldn’t be trying so hard to protect this species if Foster hadn’t noticed the little chick with webbed feet in 1974. But he did, and now concerned citizens like the staff at Big Basin are doing everything they can to save it.
Wings Over the Basin will be held this weekend, Aug. 1-3 at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, 21600 Big Basin Way, Boulder Creek. 831.338.8860. Admission is free, but parking is $10. Festival participants may join the group campsite for $25/night.
Directions to the tree where the first marbled murrelet nest was discovered:From Headquarters, take the Sequoia Trail to Sempervirens Falls and follow to Jay Camp. Follow the trail to the bathroom and take a left past the gate to sites 1 & 2. Stand by the fallen log and look in the opposite direction of the picnic table. A tall Douglas fir stands straight ahead between campsites 5 & 6. About 150 feet up (so really, really high up) there’s a branch shaped distinctly like a whale tail. A couple feet above this branch is a silver plaque marking the spot where the branch of the first discovered marbled murrelet nest used to grow.
Learn more at the official Wings Over The Basin website.