The Marbled Murrelet was one of the many different types of wildlife that I encountered during my recent trip to Alaska. I was soon fascinated with this bird and with good reason. It is a bird of remarkable history and a true one-of-a-kind in beauty, strength and sheer awe.
The small robin-sized sea bird, the Marbled Murrelet (brachyramphus marmoratus) also known as the Fog Lark makes its home in the coastal region the majority of the year. However, they travel inland or just beyond the surf of about 20 miles distance to nest from April to August. They first started making nests in trees about 15 million years ago, but that wasn't until after the West Coast became overgrown with gigantic Dawn Redwood, or the Metasequoia tree. The first know nest was supposedly found on June 13, 1931 on Chicago Island, Alaska in a rockslide far above the timberline at a remarkable 1,900 feet.
Marbled Murrelets are found in the shoreline areas of the north Pacific Ocean, central California to southern Alaska, as well as Russia, and Japan to Kamchatka. Murrelets center their diet mainly around fish including Pacific herring, Pacific sandlance and seaperch. Commonly, they forage alone or in pairs, occasionally in mixed species feeding flocks.
The Life of a Murrelet
The Marbled Murrelet pair will breed every other year (as early as 3 years of age) and have a strong "site-fidelity" by returning to the same spot every mating season. They have also been known however to not look for another spot if their previous one has been disturbed. Unfortunately, they murrelet has a 72 percent hatching failure rate, 50 percent of which is due to predation.
Truly "Upper" Class
These birds do live in trees, however you will not find them in your everyday bird nest. The murrelet lays its egg (as you will find they only lay one at a time) on a mossy branch at a cozy 150 feet above the ground.
Each pair of murrelets lay only one egg (yellowish colored and spotted), but split the incubation work fifty-fifty. They each take turns keeping the egg warm for 24 hours at time, and switching each dawn for a month. Once the egg has hatched, the chick is not without a parent for a single moment for as long as three days. However, the adults soon take a different track and leave the chick completely alone after these three days and they only return when it needs to be fed.
Feeding takes up the majority of the day since the parents travel back and forth from the Pacific Ocean to their young numerous times a day, and each time come bearing a tasty fish. Being the good parents that they are, they do not leave until they have made sure that the chick has swallowed the whole fish before they journey out to fetch another. It has also been recorded that they can fly up to 100 km one-way to the sea in search of food for their young.
Life in the Fast Lane
You'd better have a good eye if you plan on seeing one of this winged creatures flying about! When flying during the twilight or in the morning before dawn, these murrelets usually follow the waterways and canyons while they speed above tree-top level at about 65-90 miles per hour. They slam on the breaks and dive into the tree canopy just before reaching the nests.
When the young has reached the age of fledging, it will spend the day preening its fluffy camouflage, bringing its adult plumage to the surface. When dusk arrives, it heads out to the sea completely unescorted.
It has been estimated that the overall Marbled Murrelet nesting habitat has been reduced by 85%. This leads to isolated populations causing a decrease in genetic diversity. There is less than 15,000 murrelets left to be found in Oregon's off-shore waters, and it is guessed that less than 10 percent of their habitat remains there. They are also affected by both oil spills since they feed so close to shore, as well as a reduced food supply due to El Nino. The Marbled Murrelet is now listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1991.