Tragedy averted

Kate Hau and Ben Nelson, visitors at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, north of Eureka, California, noticed what they thought was a child’s stuffed animal on the road. Curious they pulled over, and discovered a lost marbled murrelet sitting in the middle of the road. Credit: Lynn Roberts/USFWS

Lost marbled murrelet found in roadway, returned to the sea by wildlife heroes

By Lynn Roberts and Pam Bierce
December 5, 2017

The marbled murrelet is often referred to as an elusive seabird and only a few nature enthusiasts have ever seen a fledgling in the wild.

The rare sightings are due to a decreased population and the bird’s odd nesting habits. Currently only a fraction of the bird’s historic population remain.

Unlike other seabirds, the marbled murrelet spends all of its time at sea and only flies inland to nest in older forests. However, on September 24 a federally threatened juvenile murrelet was discovered on the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway in Humboldt County, California.

In the 24 hours that followed the discovery, individuals and organizations would team-up to rescue, care for, and ultimately release the small bird back into the wild.

Around 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Kate Hau and Ben Nelson, visitors at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, noticed what they thought was a child’s stuffed animal on the road. Curious they pulled over, and discovered a small live bird sitting in the middle of the road. Natural resource professionals themselves, they immediately knew they had found something in need of assistance.

As it grew dark and the threat of the bird being run over imminent, they collected the murrelet and transported it to their Trinidad rental. Once at the rental the small black and white seabird was housed in a box lined with a towel and placed in a quiet, cool, dark room.

Wildlife heroes Kate Hau and Ben Nelson identified the lost bird with the help of the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park Visitor Guide. Courtesy photo: Kate Hau

With the bird safe for the evening, the rescuers got to work trying to identify the bird. Thanks to outstanding visitor education efforts, their answer would be found on page five of the Redwood Visitor Guide produced by Redwood National and State Parks. There under the title “Marbled Murrelet: On the Edge of Extinction” was a photo matching their roadside find and the rescuers contacted State Parks.

“Ben and I have been sharing this story with friends and coworkers, and it stops them in their tracks,” said Hau. “It was an incredibly powerful and healing experience for both of us. It reminded us why we are in the field we are in.”

By 9:00 a.m. Monday, Portia Halbert, with State Parks in Santa Cruz, contacted U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Lynn Roberts regarding the recovered marbled murrelet fledgling in Prairie Creek State Park.

This was not the first grounded marbled murrelet we had processed,” said Roberts, a threatened and endangered species biologist with the Arcata Fish and Wildlife Office. “We have an interagency grounded marbled murrelet protocol in place.”

Following her interaction with Halbert, Roberts contacted Hau and Nelson and arranged for the bird to be dropped off at her office.

The lost murrelet arrives at the Humboldt Wildlife Care Center in Arcata, California, for care and examination. Credit: Lynn Roberts/USFWS

As seabirds, this fledgling’s parents would have spent most of their lives at sea, but during nesting season, they flew inland to lay one egg on the branch of a large older tree.

In the North Coast area, adult marbled murrelets select nest sites on primarily old-growth redwood and Douglas-fir trees located within 25 miles from the sea. Once hatched, adults will fly inland daily to feed their offspring sardines, anchovies and other small fish. Following 28-40 days of care by both parents, the chick is ready to fledge and will leave the nest under low light conditions to avoid predators. The new fliers will need to reach the ocean on their first flight. Landing anywhere short of the water likely means death as the birds are unable to take off from the ground of the forest.

By 9:30 a.m. Monday, Roberts received the bird from Hau and Nelson, transporting it to the Humboldt Wildlife Care Center in Arcata for care and examination. The center, which is an important partner in efforts to conserve threatened and endangered species, examined the bird. They determined that hydration was needed, but otherwise the bird was in good health.

Bruce Hales (left), Damon Maguire and Service biologist Lynn Roberts (right) plan the bird's release point, a location south of Trinidad Harbor.  Courtesy photo: Laura Corsiglia

Marbled murrelets do not survive well in captivity, so the next step was returning the fledging to the wild as quickly as possible; this meant getting it to its original destination - the ocean.

At 10:30 a.m. Monday, Roberts reached out to Damon Maguire, a local volunteer and expert sea kayaker. Once informed of the fledgling’s situation, he agreed to transport the bird later that day to a pre-determined offshore area south of Trinidad Harbor. She arranged to meet Maguire and his colleague Bruce Hales at the entrance to Indian Beach at 4 p.m. At 4:05 p.m., the volunteer sea transporters paddled out to sea, with the bird’s plastic housing safely strapped to Hale’s kayak.

At approximately 4:25 p.m., the fledgling was successfully released, diving energetically into the Pacific Ocean.

“Nature can use all the help it can get these days,” said Maguire. “It was great to see the little bird dive. We really enjoyed it, and would love to help again anytime!”

Since the marbled murrelet was federally listed in 1992, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in California has successfully partnered with national, state, county and city parks, the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, tribes, and private landowners in an effort to protect this threatened species.

“Thanks to the commitment and passionate efforts of many people, this small, lost marbled murrelet fledgling safely reached the sea in less than 24 hours,” said Roberts.

Expert sea kayakers, Bruce Hales (left) and Damon Maguire transport the marbled murrelet out to sea. Courtesy photo: Laura Corsiglia