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Marbled murrelet in steep decline

Study: conservation plan isnt assuring species survives


by: COURTESY OF THE AUDUBON SOCIETY - An encased dead marbled murrelet may be the best way for most Oregonians to see the endangered bird species up close. Murrelets are in serious decline despite a major conservation effort. The death knell is ringing for Oregon's marbled murrelet.

The seabird, which nests in old growth coastal forests and hunts for fish beyond the surf, is losing the battle against extinction. And this despite the best efforts of conservationists.

An impartial study published in the international research journal The Condor found that marbled murrelet numbers in five different study areas fell sharply between 2001 and 2010. The count dropped from 22,200 to roughly 16,700. And this included four of the five conservation areas identified in the federal Marbled Murrelet Recovery Plan.

Marbled murrelets live in Oregon, Washington and California. They’ve been on the federal endangered species list for more than 20 years, but they're worse off than ever.

“This study confirms the fears that many conservationists have held for years,” says Steve Holmer, senior policy analyst for the American Bird Conservancy, about the report published in December. “By showing that the marbled murrelet is still in sharp decline, the study emphasizes the need for stronger, more aggressive conservation measures.”

In March, Washington D.C.-based Holmer and his colleagues met with members of the Obama administration at the departments of Interior and Agriculture, and the Office of Management and Budget.

"We talked about the need to maintain the Northwest Forest Plan and support forest restoration, and we're drafting a follow-up letter with our recommendations for marbled murrelet conservation," Holmer says. "The murrelet is headed to extinction, and by protecting its habitat, we also protect clean water and store more carbon," Holmer says.

More at risk than spotted owl

The bird's nesting habitat is shrinking due to logging, especially on state and private land. Very little of the coastal strip where it breeds is public land. Fires and windstorms also have damaged its habitat.

In addition, the bird is dying out because it’s being preyed on by crows, ravens and other corvids.

It is even more vulnerable than the northern spotted owl, which the Northwest Forest Plan was designed to protect.

The marbled murrelet doesn’t build a nest. Once a year, it looks for a fat bough covered in moss on a 200-plus-year-old tree, then lays its solitary egg on the moss. Crows, which can live on campsite trash, are flourishing as recreation expands into the marbled murrelet's habitat. The more gaps in the habitat, the more corvids prosper, as they can move in and out at will. And they are not averse to snacking on marbled murrelet eggs and chicks.

Add to that, the murrelet typically flies dozens of miles at high speed to the ocean to feed on oily fish like herring. As herring have been overfished, they have to make do with lower-lipid fish.

The rise of wind farms and feral cats hasn't helped either.

"With a decline of 10 percent in Washington state, it doesn't look good for the species," says Kim Nelson, a research wildlife biologist at Oregon State University's Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. "The protections in place don't seem to be helping."

Breeding efforts futile

She points out that breeding murrelets in captivity has so far proved impossible. The Oregon Coast Aquarium tried it.

"They never survived. They wouldn't eat their live fish, and even when the staff got the birds to eat dead fish they would beat their beaks against the cage until they damaged them."

Other auks such as tufted puffins beat up on them. "We don't really know why," Nelson says. Just like the barred owl muscling in on the northern spotted's territory, so the marbled murrelet is losing out.

They can fly, but they can't hide

"I've seen jays go limb to limb looking for their nests," Nelson says. It doesn't help that once the egg hatches, the parents soon abandon their young.

On a recent morning, Tim Donner, an environmental educator at the Portland Audubon Society, was happy to dig around in storage for a stuffed murrelet. It is kept in a clear cylinder so that school kids can pass it around and get a good look at its tiny body and face.

Six years ago, living in Elsie on Oregon Highway 26, Donner surveyed for marbled murrelets in the state forests in the Coast Range. "We'd get up at dawn and look up through openings in the canopy. They were like potatoes going 60, 70, 80 miles an hour."

Murrelets were easy to spot by their speed. Some researchers have even used radar to track them. "It was a presence/absence survey,” Donner says. “So if you saw or heard one, they would have to delay logging in that area."

The marbled murrelet can breed in younger trees, such as a 60-year-old Sitka spruce or Western hemlock, if dwarf mistletoe has caused a bulbous growth on a branch wide enough for the eggs. But Nelson discounts the chances of an artificial habitat ever working.

Many Portlanders may never have seen a murrelet. They don't hang out with the gulls in the Seaside parking lots. At the coast, bird watchers board boats for pelagic trips to see marbled murrelets feeding far out at sea. But because they fly so fast into the old growth canopy, they are not a common sight.

"These endangered forest species should be protected and saved for the health of the forests and the health of humans," Nelson says, "so that future generations can experience the uniqueness and value of each and every species."