Unlocking the mystery of the marbled murrelet took 5 years

Writer Maria Mudd Ruth’s book details the bird that can fly 100 mph and dive into the ocean for food.

A marbled murrelet‘s combination of speed, short wings, nesting site and ability to dive into the ocean for a meal is second on my most fascinating chart to only a hummingbird’s body shape, wing speed and ability to hover and fly backwards.

It’s also author Maria Mudd Ruth’s favorite bird, and the star of her book, “Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet, ” as well as the current subject of the state Department of Natural Resources’ effort to update its strategy to conserve marbled murrelet habitat on state trust lands in Western Washington.

Ruth wrote children-oriented nature books for National Geographic, such as butterflies and beetles.

“I found that I enjoyed learning about things that I might have wanted to know, and to explain these things to young readers … to engage them in their curiosity and about how the world works,” she said.

Ruth knew next to nothing about the murrelet until she met it by chance on the Internet. Interested, she discovered that very little had been written about it. It became a writing project, one that would involve five years of research, field work and writing; being paranoid that someone would “get the scoop,” and convincing her husband to move across the country.

She tagged along with biologists, rising at a ridiculous hour, sometimes walking straight up for about an hour following little pieces of reflective tape by headlamp to a nesting area for a two-hour window when an incoming murrelet might breeze through the trees with food for a single chick.

“When the robins started to sing, we couldn’t hear the murrelet anymore,” she said. “Now the sound of robins makes me want to curl up and have a nap.”

Marbled murrelets fly at the edge of what’s possible for both flying and swimming. They have high wing-loading, a large body with a small wing surface.

“When they fly, the wings are whirring (a pattern of wing movement), just a blur of wings to keep the relatively heavy body in the air,” Ruth said.

But their wing size makes it harder to dive, again pushing the limits.

“They’re essentially flying under water without breaking a wing.”

Unlike many species of seabirds that nest on rocky ledges offshore, the marbled murrelet opts for a site, usually safe from predators, in the upper third of old-growth redwoods or Douglas fir, where they lay one egg the size of a small chicken egg, usually on moss.

There is some evidence that murrelets will make reconnaissance runs, and will fly as fast as 100 mph and as far as 50 miles to find the right nesting platform, and tend to return to the same site each year. A couple hundred years of logging old-growth trees has limited their opportunities, but logging is no longer the only threat, she said.

Changing ocean conditions (usually warming temperatures) changes the abundance of food supply. A seasonal upwelling of water brings small fish upward for this surface diver. Overfishing of small forage fish such as herring, anchovies and sandlance for pet food and fish fertilizer also impacts murrelets. Poor nutrition can interfere with breeding success, Ruth said.

Now it’s time for the chick to face its major challenge: leave the nest. It has spent about a month there, being fed seafood, at night, probably by both parents, and alone 85 percent of the time, Ruth said. Fledgling feathers are coming in. For about 48 hours, down is peeling off as the bird pecks at it.

Then it’s time for the solo act.

“It’s very restless, it’s moving around,” she said. “The parents have likely abandoned it … It steps to the edge of a branch and takes off flying for first time for an unknown distance to an ocean it hasn’t seen. It becomes a seabird, swimming under water,” Ruth said.

In this bird’s case, it’s nature, not nurture.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964.

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