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By: Linnea Howard, OMMP Field Intern

The Marbled Murrelet is like a spy- it’s elusive, secretive, silent and rarely seen. Those who study this species are often forced to stare over the ocean or through a stand of Douglas fir and lament about our misfortune. Then, out from the fog below, the sound of a single keer floats up to our ears and we strain our eyes to see what’s stalking the valley below. Rejoice! A murrelet, flapping clumsily across the waves. It waits a moment, then disappears, diving beneath the dark, foamy waters, leaving the researcher, yet again, to observe the common occurrences of the Oregon coastline. Fortunately for us, the natural scenery provides more than enough entertainment to occupy our time in between fleeting “beeps” of the receiver. Below, enjoy some of the views we are so lucky to behold on a daily basis.

Fishing Rock, Photography by Holly Todaro

Canopy Gap, Photography by Linnea Howard

Photography by Linnea Howard

Rainbow, Photography by Holly Todaro

Whale Cove, Photography by Holly Todaro

Setting up camp, Photography by Ariel Lenske

Barnacles, Photography by Ariel Lenske

Forest Views, Photography by Chelsea Klocke

Sunset from the Pacific Storm, Photography by Ethan Woodis

Drones, Photography by Ethan Woodis

Yaquina Head, Photography by Holly Todaro

South Jeti, Photography by Holly Todaro

Morning in the forest, Photography by Holly Todaro

Seal Rock, Photography by Linnea Howard

 

By: Megan Linke, OMMP Field Technician

Its 3:17 in the morning. Under the light of my headlamp, I slowly follow my fellow crew members in front of me down a steep trail into the moss covered forest. The trail is edged by huge majestic Douglas fir trees and barbed salmonberry canes. This is the third morning in a row now hiking down this trail to conduct a dawn nest watch, looking for an elusive Marbled Murrelet nest. After the hour hike in, my pants are covered in mud from slipping down the trail, my muscles are burning, and in spite of the cold temperatures I have started to sweat. We finally approach the nest survey area and split up, each heading to our own stations. I hike the short trail down to station 6, following the colored flagging reflecting in the light of my headlamp. The trail winds through thick vegetation and over downed logs. The station has a large canopy gap that allows me to see the sky and two of the three possible nest trees. As I wait for the survey to start I turn off my headlamp to let my eyes adjust to the dark. In the pitch black of the morning I hear nothing but the creek babbling just 30 meters down the hill and a rustling noise that I try to ignore. It is now 5:00 am, I have been staring at the sky waiting to see a Marbled Murrelet fly through the area for 30 minutes now. My toes are starting to go numb, and my neck cramping from looking up. I know I have to keep looking through the canopy gap. The bird should be here any minute now and if I look away now I could miss it. As the minutes pass I hear the forest wake up, first the Swainson’s Thrush, then the rest follow suite with their morning song. Interrupting the morning cacophony I hear “incoming bird” over my radio. This alone sets my heart beating faster. I know the bird is very close now.  I hear fast wing beats behind me as if the bird flew past me. I turn and follow the noise, but through the dark canopy I saw nothing. I wait a few minutes, still no birds. The radio is silent, therefore none of my crew members saw it either. Bust, we missed the bird today, in 30 minutes the survey will end and we will all go home and try again tomorrow morning.

The bird was spotted the following morning by two people on the survey crew. A nest camera was put in place and has been constantly monitoring the nest ever since. The egg has now hatched into a chick, and receives fish from its parents every morning.

Photography by Annika Anderson

By: Jon Dachenhaus and Ariel Lenske, OMMP Aerial Technicans

Marbled Murrelets are amazingly good at hiding during the breeding season. Disguised in their marbled dark brown plumage, they blend in with Pigeon Guillemot flocks on the water and with the silhouette of tree branches during early mornings in the forest. Given this, it may seem a little counter intuitive that one of the ways we search for them is from an altitude of 2000 feet in a small airplane.

Photography by Ariel Lenske

But that’s exactly what we do. Armed with technology and our ears we fly along the coast listening for the distinctive ‘beep’,……,‘beep’, coming from the receiver that means we’ve picked up the signal from a radio-tag that the capture crew attached to a Marbled Murrelet earlier in the season.

 

 

We start each flight by searching for any birds not detected by the coastal telemetry ground crew (see radio-telemetry post). Next, if we’re lucky and one of the birds has been showing signs of nesting and isn’t found on the water, we head inland to start the intensive nest searching process required to locate a Marbled Murrelet nest. Our part of the search consists of flying transects from the coast to the valley on a day when we suspect a bird is on its nest incubating. During the flight we strain our ears in the hope of detecting a faint ‘beep’ among the interference that sounds like an out-of-range radio station. Sometimes you can fly for an hour hearing nothing but interference. How are you supposed to hear something flying thousands of feet in the air that is the size of a peanut and attached to a bird the size of a dove?  It seems ill-fated.

Photography by Ariel Lenske

Just as uncertainty, disappointment, or exasperation begin to set it, you pick a few faint “beeps” of a radio tag.  What was that?  Could it be?  You try to talk yourself out of what you heard and chalk it up to the incessant noise of radio space, the stray radio signal you pick up from places, or just a figment of your imagination.  But we’ve logged over a hundred of hours listening to the “beeps” so we could pick up that pitch and signal pattern in our sleep.  Excitement sets in because you know that signal is likely coming from a nesting Marbled Murrelet.  Suddenly wishful thinking becomes pinpoint decision-making, carving lines and circles in the sky above the forest.  We hone in on the signal by ‘boxing’ it, flying in a rectangular pattern around the signal to isolate where it is coming from. Like a game of minesweeper, we fly around the point, listening how the signal changes as we circle above.  After all, discovering where the signal is not coming from is almost as important as discovering where the signal is originating.  Exhausting all other locations, we fly in a tight circle where the signal from the radio-tag is strongest and take a GPS point.

 

Photography by Ariel Lenske

We fly back to the airport in spirits as high as our altitude, half expecting a party to receive us at the airport in celebration.  Not celebrating a finished job, however; celebrating the opportunity to get to work.  Because after a potential nest has been located in the plane, it’s now the ground crew’s turn to get into the forest and find the nest tree.

By: Ethan Woodis, OMMP Field Crew Leader

Nesting season for the Marbled Murrelet is upon us! That means the Oregon Marbled Murrelet Project’s Coastal Telemetry crews are back on the coast. With the weather clearing up and the whales moving North, the tourist season on the Oregon Coast is in full force. For many people, seeing us on the coast with our radio telemetry gear pointed at the ocean can be a strange sight. For the record, we are not looking for, tracking or listening to whales, sharks or extraterrestrials. We are, also, not photographers, meteorologists or seismologists. And finally, our phone service is just as bad as everyone else’s on the coast and we are not using our antenna to boost the signal. What we are doing is using a radio telemetry receiver and a Yagi antenna to listen for Marbled Murrelets that have been tagged with a radio telemetry transmitter. If the bird with the attached transmitter is close enough to the receiver (within about three kilometers), the receiver will pick up the transmitted signal and start beeping. By listening for these beeps, recording where we are when we hear them and taking a bearing with a compass in the direction that the signal is being received, we are able to determine where the tagged murrelet is on the water. This will help us to understand the foraging habits of Marbled Murrelets on the Oregon Coast which will help us to better understand how we can help to protect this extremely unique species.

Photography by Ethan Woodis

 

That’s how and why we are using radio telemetry but what exactly is radio telemetry? Radio telemetry was the first real-time method of tracking individual animals over a long distance. In the field of wildlife research this has made it possible for researchers to track and study wildlife much more efficiently. The transmitters we use are VHF (Very High Frequency) tags. In the electromagnetic spectrum, VHF tags transmit between 30 and 300 MHz. More common uses of VHF are television, FM radio, armature two way land radio and Air Traffic Control to name a few. Some people may have seen radio collars on deer, wolves or other large animals. These are also VHF tags but they are much larger than what we put on murrelets. The larger the transmitter the longer the battery will live. That means in only a few months our transmitters will die. The tags fall of the bird during their fall molt and it can have a new one put on the following breeding season. Within the short lifespan of our tags we are able to learn where these birds forage and where they nest. As this is a very cryptic bird, this work would be impossible without the use of radio telemetry tags.

Photography by Jim Rivers

 

So, when you see us waiving our antennae toward the ocean seemingly oblivious to the Gray Whale calf foraging just off the rocks, you now know what we are searching for and how we are searching for it. Marbled Murrelets are an extreme difficult animal to study but with technology, lots of patience and even more coffee we are slowly unraveling the mysteries of these magnificent birds.

Photography by Holly Todaro

By: Stefanie Collar, OMMP Field Crew Leader

Field biology is often a puzzle, requiring months of careful preparation by the researchers to coincide with the natural behavior of wild animals and unpredictable quirks of the environment. Seabird projects can be especially complex- many seabirds spend most of their year at sea- small and secretive points of interest in the vast ocean- only coming to land for a few months out of the year. As a general rule, seabird colonies are usually loud, busy, crowded (and stinky!) places.  These colonies can be easy to identify, but not easy to access, because breeding seabirds gain an advantage over predators by nesting on remote offshore rocks, sea stacks and islands. Many such seabird colonies dot the Oregon coast, including Caspian Tern, cormorant and Common Murre colonies.

Photo Credit: Jon Felis

The exception to this rule can also be found (with some luck and much patience) here on the Pacific Coast. The Marbled Murrelet is a small seabird found along the coasts of Oregon, Washington and California, noticeable in the fall in its striking black and white winter plumage, but cryptic in the spring and summer in its mottled, russet breeding plumage. The Marbled Murrelet undergoes this unique molt before the breeding season each year because unlike other seabirds, it does not nest in raucous offshore colonies; the Marbled Murrelet nests in forests! And not just any forests, but in the towering, solitary conifers scattered throughout the coastal forests of the Pacific coast.

Though small (about the size of a dove) and seemingly not built for speed (they are often described as ‘potato-shaped’), Marbled Murrelets are agile and quick both in the air and in the water. Before the chick hatches, the murrelet pair trade responsibilities each morning at dawn- one individual staying at the nest for 24 hours to incubate the developing egg, and the other heading out to sea to feast on small fish.  They commute between their at-sea feeding grounds and their forest nests, which can be located up to 40 miles inland and in the canopies of trees hundreds of feet tall, at speeds reaching 60-miles an hour. Their forest-camouflage breeding plumage and speedy flights help Marbled Murrelets avoid the talons of avian predators, such as Bald eagles and Peregrine falcons, which see murrelets as a perfect snack. As the murrelet chick grows, the parents bring back meals of whole fish, each making several trips a day to ensure the chick grows fat and healthy as quickly as possible. If all goes well, after about 40 days, the Marbled Murrelet chick is ready to leave the nest on its own- making the first of many trips from forest to sea.

Photo Credit: Chelsea Hutton

Our job as researchers is to try and briefly intercept these birds during their day, in an attempt to learn more about them, but the unique life history of Marbled Murrelets means that this is not as simple as it sounds. Each piece of the murrelets life – the off-shore areas where it spends the night, the coastal zones where it forages, the forest where it makes its nest – requires a corresponding piece of field work. At night we use boats to explore the offshore areas where seabirds congregate, deploying small radio-tags on individual murrelets that allow us to track their movements; during the day we use radio telemetry to locate the tagged murrelets from cars and small planes; when a tagged murrelet is located inland, we hike through thickets of salmonberry and remote stands of old growth forest before dawn to watch and listen for the secret nests of murrelets. All these pieces come together to give us a clearer picture of not only what murrelets are doing in Oregon, but how they are doing, and how we can ensure they thrive for the coming generations.

 

There is something surreal about leaving the docks in the early evenings and knowing that your night of work out at sea is just about to begin.

As sun disappears just below the horizon, the R/V Pacific Storm motors its way under the Newport Bridge and out onto the open water. The mood onboard is calm and quiet as everyone begins their own mental preparations for the night ahead. The ship will not return to dock until just after sunrise and the hope is that the crew will see several Marbled Murrelets between now and then.

The Marbled Murrelet is a dove-sized seabird, listed as an endangered species in the state of Oregon. While the murrelet spends the majority of its time out at sea, the species is well known for its unique ability to travel up to 40 miles inland in order to nest in older forests. Tasked with the challenge of studying the nesting behaviors of this secretive seabird, the Oregon Marbled Murrelet Project takes on the herculean effort of carefully trapping murrelets on the ocean and tagging them with radio transmitters so they can be tracked to their nests. Captures are performed at night, as the birds roost for the evening on the gently rolling waves.

This was my first opportunity to join our crews out on the water since the start of the project. As the Program Manager for the Oregon Marbled Murrelet Project, my duties don’t often take me out into the field anymore. While we motored out to our offshore starting point, I walked around the back deck, enjoying the opportunity to chat with the skilled capture crew we bring onto the project each year. Their combined decades of experience capturing seabirds on the water lends itself to some incredible stories and well developed senses of humor. Rounding out the scientific team, our research scientists and seasonal field technicians lined the side of the ship, taking in the beautiful evening as the last light faded out. The Pacific Storm slowed and everyone went to work.

As the ship came to an idle, the research technicians filed into the indoor lab to prepare stations for taking biological measurements of captured birds and attaching the radio transmitters. Marbled Murrelet captures are done from a small motor boat, called a zodiac, while the R/V Pacific Storm acts as the mothership, awaiting the captured birds for processing. A large crane lifted the zodiac off of the back deck and lowered it into the water, followed shortly by the seasoned capture crew. Within moments, they were all aboard and motoring out into the quiet night, a headlamp illuminating their path and searching systematically for dozing murrelets.

After an hour or two, a chirp on the radio alerted the researchers that the capture crew was on their way back with a murrelet. The consistent weeks of working together were evident from the organized efficiency of the research scientists and technicians as they tidied their stations and got into position. The bird arrived at the Pacific Storm and was carefully passed up in a pet carrier into awaiting arms. Despite the running clock to have the bird back out on the water in short order, calm hands passed the bird quietly from station to station as measurements were taken and a transmitter was attached to the back of the murrelet. If any of the crew were fighting down nerves, their struggles were invisible as I admired the team working as a well-oiled machine. In a matter of minutes, the murrelet was back out on the back deck and being released into the dark night, flying off well past the distance of my night vision. We walked back indoors to await the next bird.

Over the course of the field season, we hope to provide you with a behind the scenes glimpse of what field work really looks like and the effort that it takes to study the Marbled Murrelet. Our dedicated field technicians that have a front seat view of the project will be providing you with a variety of perspectives, in their own words, to take you along with us in the field. We hope you enjoy the read and visit our website at www.oregonmurrelet.org.

~~Jenn Guerrero, OMMP Program Manager

 

Stay tuned as the Oregon Marbled Murrelet Project will soon be starting a blog to share our notes from the upcoming 2018 field season! For regular updates, please check our website at www.oregonmurrelet.org or follow us on instagram at @oregonmurrelet

Photo Credit: Jennifer Rothe