Shrouded in Secrecy

The marbled murrelet is one of the least-studied species on the continent; it is also one of the most controversial

04-01-1999 // Bill Donahue

The whole business is a bit like waiting for Godot. In the murky light of an Oregon dawn, Kim Nelson is standing on the edge of a woodland in the Tillamook State Forest, waiting for a robin-sized bird to come darting out through the fog at 50 or so miles per hour.

An Oregon State University biologist, Nelson is certain there´s a nest in these woods, based on previous observations of birds in the area. But she doesn´t know exactly where, or when, the creature will swoop into the trees. And given that the creature she´s waiting for is a marbled murrelet, there´s nothing surprising about her uncertainty. The murrelet is a bird shrouded in secrecy. The last North American bird to have its nest discovered (in 1974), it is one of the least-studied species on the continent.

"There!" Nelson shouts suddenly. A chocolate brown speck passes overhead. It flies west, bobbing on the horizon like a fast-skipping stone above the vast, 560-square-mile state forest. The murrelet ranges in coastal forests along North America´s Pacific Coast, from the Gulf of Alaska to central California. It nests in old-growth forests and mature second-growth forests like the Tillamook. Incongruously, it feeds on fish, flying oceanward at sunrise, traveling some 55 miles each way to fetch its prey.

Scientists estimate that only about 17,000 marbled murrelets survive in the contiguous 48 states and the species is officially listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Like the more-renowned northern spotted owl, the murrelet is heavily dependent upon older-aged forest habitat for nesting. And like the owl, it has become the bane of the Northwest timber industry which covets the wood in such ancient forests. By some estimates, 90 percent of the creature´s original habitat is now gone in this country, and the remainder is dwindling fast.

In Oregon, the state Department of Forestry is finalizing a management plan that many conservationists believe could prove disastrous for the murrelet. The agency aims, improbably, to preserve the species´ habitat while allowing loggers to fell as much as 95 percent of some 600,000 acres of woodlands, most of it in the Tillamook forest.

Under the controversial plan, the state would spend the next 50 years invoking a largely untested forestry tactic called structure-based management, which involves using selective logging on a rotational basis. Loggers would cut some, but not all, of the trees in each stand every 15 to 30 years. "Our goal," says Marcia Humes, a state forestry biologist, "is to produce stands that have a diversity of tree ages and size, stands that mimic old-growth forests in structure and function. And the plan doesn´t call for the logging of occupied murrelet habitat."

Sybil Ackerman, a Portland-based habitat specialist for the National Wildlife Federation, is dubious. "There needs to be prescriptions for the murrelet beyond structure-based management," she says. "There should be reserves and an adequate recovery strategy for the bird. In the current version of the plan, there may not be any reserves."

Murrelet populations are declining at roughly 5 percent each year in Oregon, Washington and California. And Ackerman notes that they are particularly imperiled in northern Oregon where most coastal forests are owned by timber firms. Soon, she says, "we may not find any of the birds in northern Oregon."

The murrelet was once ubiquitous along the West Coast, living even in populated areas such as San Francisco Bay. No one could trace the bird to its nest, though, until 1974 when Hoyt Foster, a tree trimmer, happened upon what he called a "squashed-up porcupine" high in a California redwood. It was a newborn murrelet. Fifteen more years would pass before scientists would find another murrelet nest.

"They fly silently in the dim light of dawn or dusk," explains Nelson, who has studied marbled murrelets for more than a decade. "Then they disappear into the branches. Once, we had five people standing around looking at one tree. The murrelet swooped into the nest and only the video camera saw the bird enter."

A murrelet´s nest is actually a baseball-sized cup in moss, situated on a wide tree branch that is hidden from predators by overhanging limbs. Though the birds have been known to nest on the thinner branches of second-growth trees, Nelson has found that large, old-growth stands are their optimal habitat. "Many of the successful nests I´ve found have been greater than 50 meters from the edge of the forest," she says. "When they don´t have cover--when the stand is small or in a fragmented area--murrelets are preyed upon by ravens and Steller´s jays."

The Oregon forestry department´s plan for the Tillamook is based, Nelson maintains, on the assumption that if murrelet habitat is logged, its residents will simply find a new forest home. But murrelets are alcids, members of a family of birds that includes puffins and murres. "Adult alcids rarely move from their historic sites," says the biologist. "There are infrequent occasions where juvenile alcids have colonized new areas, but that behavior is rare as far as we know."

On this day, Nelson has hiked into the Tillamook forest to join her crew´s search for murrelets. The researchers climb massive trees looking for signs of nests, but they come up empty-handed. For Nelson, such research is both physically and intellectually demanding. "We know the bird´s calls," she says, "but we don´t know what the calls mean. We also don´t know the birds´ longevity, or the age of first breeding. We simply need to learn a lot more about this elusive species, including what happens when their habitat is modified or destroyed."

Oregon writer Bill Donahue searched with scientists for marbled murrelets while reporting this article.

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