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Marbled Murrelets - California's Fog Larks

Fog Larks
by Pamela Conley

Ecology notes.
Evolution notes.
New books New and Recent Books about Forests and Trees.
Buy The Sibley Guide to Birds The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley.
For experienced birders. Includes 810 species in North America, with 6,600 beautiful watercolor illustrations and descriptive text by one of the foremost bird painters and authorities in the U.S.A. With a pointer system for key field markings.

Discovery of the "fog lark" as the Marbled Murrelet.

The early loggers used to call them the "fog larks" because they could occasionally be glimpsed in pairs at dusk and dawn in the deep forest. Most often they were hidden from view by the fog, but they could be heard in the early morning and evening calling "keer, keer, keer."

For many years they were thought to leave the ocean and enter the coastal forests to nest.

But it wasn't until 1974 that a tree-trimmer found a strange baby bird in a nest five miles from the ocean in Big Basin Redwoods State Park near Santa Cruz, California. This baby bird sitting in a nest on a mossy limb of an old Douglas fir tree had webbed feet.

He brought it down and turned it over to park rangers, who helped solve this ornithological mystery. They finally knew where the marbled murrelet nested.

Extinction Probability for the Marbled Murrelet.

In a short span of 100 years, California's murrelet population has dropped from 60,000 to approximately 6,500 individuals.

The ancient redwood groves in Humboldt County are one of only three remaining nesting areas in California. Before there was any study done on the marbled murrelet numbers, two things were clear. Where there was old growth near the coasts, the murrelets were there. Where there was no old growth, there were no murrelets found.

Biologist CJ. Ralph states, "I have seen no bird as closely tied to a forest type. They are entirely dependent on old growth." Ralph believes that the breeding success rate in California is too low to keep up with the mortality, and extinction is a probability.

Prior to finding the first nest, the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest thought their battle was against another bird, the spotted owl. After the marbled murrelet became a threatened bird species, the timber industry found themselves fighting against two birds. Though it helped save some old growth from going down with a chainsaw, the little bird probably wasn't able to help save itself from disappearing from the coast of California in the near future.

Recognizing the Marbled Murrelet.

Marbled murrelets, plump little birds about the size of a robin, are unlike most birds. While nesting miles from the ocean, they live most of their lives on the Pacific Ocean catching small fish and plankton. They bob in the waves with upturned heads. Their short pointed wings are excellent for swimming underwater as well as in the air. They are fast-flying birds and have been clocked flying at 65 m.p.h. Marbled murrelets are conspicuous in the winter, and mottled drab in spring when they are nesting.

Russian explorers discovered the bird in 1789. Ornithologists were fascinated with the bird. Seeking answers to where they nested, they asked Native Americans. "In holes in trees," some would say. Others would say they nested in burrows above timberline or at the roots of trees. They all agreed that the bird nested in the forest. Since most seabirds are colonizers and prefer to nest in crowded squawking colonies on ocean cliffs, and islands, the biologists and naturalists thought the Indians' answers were doubtful.

For thousands of years these little "fog larks" have left the Pacific Ocean in pairs to find shelter in the deep damp forest of giant trees.

May we continue to keep what little old growth we have that remains, so the trees can continue to provide protection for for the fog larks, who nest in their towering moss-covered branches.

See also these pages.


Buy The Sibley Guide to Birds Sibley's Birding Basics by David Allen Sibley.
For novice bird watchers. This compact field-guide primer is also useful for veterans. Includes techniques in sighting birds; suggestions for sketching birds in the field. 200 beautiful painted illustrations; clear descriptive text; 16 essays;
Buy the Legacy Of Luna The Legacy of Luna by Julia Butterfly Hill. The dramatic story of devotion and dedication to the old growth forests and the great tree, Luna.
Buy Old-Growth Forests Field Guide to Old-Growth Forests by Larry Eifert. Discover and explore the ancient lowland forests from California, north through Oregon, to Washington Olympic Peninsula, to Canada, and to the Sitka spruce forests of Alaska.
Giants in the Earth Giants in the Earth by Peter Johnstone (Editor), Peter E. Palmquist (Photographer)
Buy Trees and Shrubs of California Trees and Shrubs of California (California Natural History Guides) by John David Stuart, et al.