A small football-shaped bird about the size of a robin makes its way from feeding grounds out at sea into the dense canopy of conifer forest, traveling as far as 50 miles inland. Despite its stubby wings, it flies nearly silently at speeds reaching 60 miles per hour, darting through the trees until it reaches its nest. Here, it settles onto the moss-covered bough of an old conifer where its chick waits to be fed.
The life of the marbled murrelet is a strange one, straddling ocean and old growth. It is a bird of trees and seas. The health of the sea and its fish stocks, and intact temperate rainforests of the Pacific northwest with plenty of large trees are both critical to its survival and reproduction. No other bird bridges this gap in habitat requirements the same way — nor requires us to bridge the gap between ocean conservation and forest conservation.
This seabird is struggling. Heavy logging starting in the 1850s destroyed much of its nesting habitat and populations plummeted by 50-80 percent. The marbled murrelet has been listed as threatened since 1992 and, for a hot minute in 2018, it was set to receive endangered species status in Oregon – but the decision was reversed due to pressure from the logging industry.
Oregon State University's Oregon Marbled Murrelet Project is underway on a 10-year study to understand more about the cryptic nesting behaviors of marbled murrelets. During the breeding season, the team captures marbled murrelets at sea and fits them with a radio transmitter. They then track the birds on land, searching the forest canopy for nesting sites. Finding a nest is incredibly difficult, even with the help of radio transmitters. So the project has partnered with Oceans Unmanned to use drones with thermal imaging technology to see heat signatures of birds in the trees. The combination helps to confirm nests with minimum disturbance.
The work of OSU's Marbled Murrelet Project will help us understand how the species is doing on the Oregon coast, how the logging industry affects the species, and hopefully can pinpoint improvements in forestry practices that will protect not only murrelets but the other species that rely on the temperate rainforest ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest.
In collaboration with the project, I am documenting the complex and highly compelling field work that will slowly uncover the secrets of this incredible and elusive seabird species. In the process, we will see that the marbled murrelet, with every flight from feeding ground to nesting site, clutching a salty fish in its bill to feed to a chick tucked against a moss-covered bough, is the sentinel species that closes the loop in our coastal watershed biography.