Marbled Murrelets

The surprise discovery of the first Marbled Murrelet nest ever found unlocked one of the final significant mysteries in American ornithology. In 1974 a lucky Santa Cruz, California, park employee who climbed to the top of an ancient redwood tree accidently found what turned out to be a Marbled Murrelet nest built atop a massive branch high in the tree canopy.

Thanks to that accidental discovery we learned that, unlike all other seabirds, the Marbled Murrelet is a seabird, a forest bird and, in many ways, also a river bird. Like salmon, Marbled Murrelets spend most of their adult life at sea and return inland only to reproduce. They are the only seabirds exhibiting this behavior; all others nest on isolated sea cliffs or islets at sea.

While rearing nestlings, Marbled Murrelets leave their nests just once each day during the low-light hours before dawn or following dusk. They are fast fliers and their colors make them well-camouflaged, so they are rarely noticed darting silently between forest and sea to forage for small fish and other food to feed their nestlings.

During their journeys inland, murrelets follow river corridors upstream, flying up tributaries deep into the forest to nest. So it should come as no surprise that a conservation project that Western Rivers Conservancy launched to save the Klamath River’s salmon will be a game-changer for Marbled Murrelets, too. Partial funding for the project was provided by the Healthy Watersheds Consortium Grant Program.

In 1992, Marbled Murrelets were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but populations continue to decline.

Unfortunately, what makes Marbled Murrelets unique is exactly what makes them vulnerable. Because murrelets nest only on large upper branches of old-growth conifer forests, their numbers – like their habitat – have been declining for decades.

Western Rivers Conservancy’s (WRC) project in northern California, which is in the heart of the best murrelet habitat in the Lower 48 States, may do more to protect and improve murrelet habitat than any other effort in the Pacific Northwest. In partnership with the Yurok Tribe, WRC will conserve 47,000 acres of land along the Klamath River and Blue Creek, restoring tens of thousands of acres of mature and late-seral forest habitat within 30 miles of the ocean.

Western Rivers Conservancy embarked on this project in 2008 with the goal of creating a salmon sanctuary at Blue Creek, the most important cold-water tributary to the Lower Klamath; but it soon became clear that the project benefits would extend far beyond fish.

Blue Creek is located within the Siskiyou Coast Range and supports one of the largest Marbled Murrelet populations in California, Oregon, and Washington. The project is just three miles outside Redwood National Park and Redwood State Park that protect the largest remaining groves of old-growth redwood. Because of the extensive habitat the parks preserve, the area has been identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as critical to Marbled Murrelet population recovery during the next century.

Recovery is far from guaranteed at this time, for while these protected public lands form the best murrelet habitat in the Lower 48, they are not enough to ensure the species’ recovery. First, habitat within the parks is shrinking through natural disturbances such as fire, wind-throw, insects, and disease. People also bring food into the park, which attracts some predatory birds and helps them increase, such as Steller’s Jays and Common Ravens that feed on murrelet eggs when possible.

Today a priority for Marbled Murrelet recovery is to add new habitat on private lands. Recruitment habitats that replace destroyed forests and add to existing habitats must be established and protected to halt murrelet declines and promote population increases, especially within the stronghold of the Coast Range Zone. The project will create recruitment habitat at a scale larger than anywhere else on the West Coast. Western Rivers Conservancy’s Blue Creek Project will conserve a vast swath of former commercial timberland that will be managed by the Yurok People to promote mature forests and old-growth habitat to benefit fish and wildlife. Western Rivers Conservancy’s project is one of two dozen watershed protection programs underway across the United States that is supported by the Healthy Watersheds Consortium Grant Program.

This project may offer the best chance for recovering murrelet populations anywhere because it is located within the most important murrelet stronghold in the contiguous U.S.

Given economic and other constraints, such objectives would be difficult for a traditional forest owner to pursue. Yet, forest-industry jobs will be maintained, improving watershed management at a large scale through innovative sustainable forestry practices and benefitting the rural economy. Transforming an industrial tree farm into a sustainable community forest and salmon sanctuary will also ensure water quality and drinking water for 1,750 rural tribal residents. The project has been a tremendous morale booster for members of the Yurok Tribe because it is returning Blue Creek, a sacred stream that has been off-limits for nearly a century to the Yurok people.

“Just having knowledge that we’re getting Blue Creek back creates a sense of optimism and hope that we’ve never seen,” Yurok Tribal Member Pergish Carlson told Western Rivers Conservancy; “at least not in my lifetime.”

Murrelets are just one bird species that will benefit from Western Rivers Conservancy’s good work. Birders exploring this area might also see raptors such as Cooper’s Hawks, and songbirds including Yellow Warblers and Yellow-breasted Chats.

The partnership of the Healthy Watersheds Consortium Grant Program includes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, in addition to the not-for-profit U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities.

During the first two years of the partnership more than $4.1 million in grants has been awarded to 25 projects in 30 states. This Western Rivers Conservancy project, like many funded through the Healthy Watersheds Consortium Grant Program, demonstrates that protecting and improving management of watersheds is good for people and nature.

Peter Stangel

Peter Stangel, Ph.D., is Chief Operating Officer at the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, where he oversees the Healthy Watersheds Consortium Grant Program. Peter is an avid birder and an informal advisor to ZEISS North America.