By Gary Luhm
The Marbled Murrelet is a small seabird in the alcid (auk) family, a family that includes guillemots, murres and puffins. Males and female MAMU look the same: white below and mostly black above in winter plumage; dark brown in breeding plumage. They are small and chunky, with small bills and pointed wings. They weigh 8 ounces with a 16 inch wingspan. For comparison, the smallish Pigeon Guillemot, which looks similar in winter plumage, weighs 1.1 lb with a 23 inch wingspan. On open water, Murrelets look small indeed; they are also shy and mostly unapproachable. If you don’t paddle with binoculars, you’ll have difficulty with identification. One key is they are often seen in pairs. Oftentimes, you’ll see them flip their tails and pointy wings up as they dive (away from you). Look for them offshore on Puget Sound in winter, or more commonly in summer on the Olympic Coast. In some bays in British Columbia and Alaska, including the Inside Passage, they can be the most common bird on the water.
The Marbled Murrelet was the last bird in North America to have its secretive nest discovered—by a chance encounter with a tree trimmer—148 feet up in a Doug Fir, in 1974. It’s no wonder breeding adults look mottled brown like tree bark close up. Unlike other seabirds (and other murrelets) that nest high on offshore cliffs or burrows, these birds fly inland as far as 50 miles. The female lays a single, camouflaged egg on a mossy, old-growth tree limb. In California, the southern part of their range, that’s often in Coastal Redwoods. Here in Washington it’s most often in Douglas Fir, but Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock also serve. In treeless areas of Alaska, they do nest on the ground.
Marbled Murrelets feed by deep dives, searching for sandlance, other small fish and invertebrates. Adults carry a single fish crosswise in their bill when heading landward to feed the chick. When the chick fledges about 40 days after hatching, it launches unaccompanied from its tree-limb nest and flies due west to water, where it begins a life at sea alone.
Because they nest in old growth, the Marbled Murrelet is both contentiously-viewed and endangered. Its conservation status was listed as threatened in Washington State, Oregon and California in 1992. In Alaska it is not listed. Threats come from logging old growth, oil spills, gill-net fishing, and predation by corvids (crows, ravens, jays), who expand their range into edge environments as forests are logged. If you want to help with their preservation, consider sending a letter to Ken Berg at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service asking or demanding an aggressive, science-based, long-term Marbled Murrelet conservation strategy.
Marbelet Murrelet, breeding plumage.