|By Bonnie Henderson. |
July 14, 4:54 a.m.: It’s still dark when I park at the pullout just south of Gwynn Creek, at the base of Cape Perpetua, and cross the highway to the little trail toward the meadow. Ahead, a dark shrub shifts slightly; turns out it's Yachats mayor Ron Brean, in a brown jacket and rain pants and wide-brimmed hat, sitting in a west-facing camp chair and gazing skyward. Lauralee Svendsgaard is with him, reclining in a fold-up chaise lounge facing east. By 5:01 a.m., six of us are in place, necks craned and scanning the gradually brightening sky, beginning the annual Central Oregon Coast marbled murrelet survey.
Lauralee was the first to hear, and then see, murrelets: a faint, repeated, high-pitched keer call, then two black dots with stubby winds, flapping furiously, speeding east at better than 60 mph high above the Sitka spruce canopy. I didn’t see them, but minutes later I saw another pair, then dozens more over the following two hours. Fifty-two birds at this site alone, though some of them may have been recounts, as some of the murrelets flew in wide circles, disappearing briefly behind the trees on their way to or from their nests in forest. More than 50 volunteers were at four sites between Yachats and Big Creek, all doing the same thing: faces tilted to the clouds, scanning.
This was the sixth annual summer survey in Oregon of this robin-sized, dove-shaped seabird. It nests from California to Alaska. In Oregon—where it may fly 50 or more miles inland to nest—the murrelet is most common on the central coast, in and around Cape Perpetua Scenic Area and Cummins Creek Wilderness. In contrast with common murres, which breed in densely packed colonies on bare rock, pairs of marbled murrelets are solitary nesters dependent upon old growth forest for habitat. They don’t build nests; they let the forest do it for them. Murrelets seek an appealing clump of moss or duff on a branch high up a big, old tree—a redwood or Douglas fir, for instance—where the female lays a single egg. The male and female take turns incubating the egg and, once it’s hatched, foraging at sea and feeding the chick, flying to and from the nest once or several times, reliably at dawn (hence the 5:01 a.m. survey).
Given the fact that we have not protected our old growth forest, it’s no surprise that the murrelet’s numbers are declining—27 percent in Oregon over the past decade. It’s been federally listed as a threatened species in the Pacific Northwest since 1992. Which is where this survey comes in. It’s not definitive, but combined with surveys of the birds at sea by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it helps provide a snapshot of the bird’s status. And it helps to raise awareness and engagement by the public in the bird and its prospects.
7:01 a.m. Survey over, the group of volunteers at Gwynn Creek starts stretching backs and folding up camp chairs. Lauralee has a big smile on her face. “Whenever I do this,” she says, “I wonder why I don’t do it more often: get up early, come out here, lie back, and just watch and listen to the dawn.”
Thanks to Kim Nelson of Oregon State University and murrelet survey organizer Paul Engelmeyer for help with this article. For more about the marbled murrelet and its conservation status, check out these two short videos from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:
Contact: Phillip Johnson, Executive Director, (503) 238-4450, or EMAIL