Marbled Murrelet Nests

In the birding community, that means Marbled Murrelet. We use the first two letters of each word in the name… ,it’s a long story.

You may have heard of them if you have been on the West Coast  for a few years. They’ve been in the news. They are one of the very few animals that require Old Forest to survive.  It’s mandatory, obligatory.

Why, you might ask? Therein lies quite a story. You see Murrelets, are a kind of seabird related to puffins and auks. They spend most of their lives on water, not in trees. And they’re not exactly aerial acrobats either. Just to get airborne, they beat their wings as hard as they can, then they paddle their legs and skip across the water, sometimes plunging through a higher wave, before they get into the air. Once in the air you’ll see their shape is like a little, stout, robin-sized football.  So they don’t turn easily.

The next thing to know about MAMUs, is that they nest in trees in old forest. For a long time biologists couldn’t figure out where they nested. As a rule, this family of birds nests on rocky islets and cliffs, places like that. So that’s where they searched.  Until, in 1976, a tree surgeon who was cutting dead branches high in a huge old Douglas Fir in a State Campground in California. He came nose to beak with a downy young bird. Having no idea what it was, he took it to a Park Naturalist, who identified it. This was the first nest of a Marbled Murrelet ever accepted by the scientific community. Later it was realized that there were several earlier finds in British Columbia, the earliest of which was in 1955, in some old field notes discovered less than 10 years ago (Earliest Well-Described Tree Nest of the Marbled Murrelet: Elk Creek, British Columbia, 1955).

The California nest had been on thick bed of moss on a big gnarly old branch near the top of the tree. There was no actual nest, just the moss.  That’s what it needs to raise its young.

So let’s go back and think about how these birds fly. They aren’t very agile in the air. So flying through forest can be tricky. The nests must be near the tops of the trees for the birds to access them.  Steep slopes and trees that emerge from the general canopy are favoured.  After hatching, the parents go back and forth from the ocean at dawn and dusk, feeding them fish, until they are ready to fly. And when they do fly, they get one chance to get it right. Essentially they just push off the branch and fall until their madly flapping wings catch the air. Their very first flight has to take them as much as 15 km to the ocean.

To conserve the populations of Marbled Murrelets on Vancouver Island the Provincial Government established Wildlife Reserves of old growth. There are only a couple of them around Sproat Lake. It’s not surprising since not much old growth is left there. But there are eight in the Nahmint Valley and a couple more in the Cous Creek Valley. Unfortunately Mosaic Forestry Management has no plans for setting any wildlife reserves aside.

Opinions differ as to whether what has been set aside is sufficient to ensure to viability of Marbled Murrelets in the future.  Remember, old forests don’t last for ever. It just seems like it