Art by Elizabeth Gayner
In the early hours before dawn, darkness lies over the great rolling waters of the Pacific Ocean. A crescent moon has just passed below the western edge of the sea, and a glittering infinity of stars shine in the vast open dome of a cloudless sky. It is early June and a pair of small brownish seabirds rides the swells a mile off the Oregon coast. They have been resting and feeding throughout much of the night, and now each holds in its beak one silvery herring from their last foraging dive. Suddenly, with rapid wing beats, they rise together from the ocean and head inland.
Follow them–just above the surface of the ocean they streak eastward–quickly arriving at the mouth of a large river, crossing the bay and racing upstream, following its twists and turns, five miles, ten miles, twenty miles–past dairy farms and small sleeping towns, by the rock outcrops and forested bluffs of the coastal mountains, winging over rapids and other stretches of the river smooth as glass with wisps of mist rising–until at just over thirty miles inland the female pulls ahead, and coming to a particular bend in the river she suddenly veers off to the south, up and over one ridge, then another. Down into this next drainage she drops, skimming over the treetops, where, nearing the bottom, she dives into the forest canopy. At a huge, old Douglas fir tree growing beside a clear-flowing creek, she abruptly swoops up and lands on a large limb 160 feet above the ground, where she remains still for a number of minutes before approaching a small ball of mottled, yellowish down settled in a depression of moss near the base of the limb.
The nestling is excited and lets loose a series of soft, high-pitched notes as its mother stands over it offering the fish. After a short while, as she makes small calls and whistles, the chick, just slightly more than a week old, takes the fish and swallows it head first. The mother then jumps from the limb, and moments later the male arrives with his delivery, swooping up and landing on the same branch. He too remains still for a bit before walking upright on his webbed feet toward the chick, and then after the nestling takes the fish, he jumps off the limb and takes flight, joining his mate to return to the ocean. After they leave, the nestling resumes its place in the mossy depression, where it will remain alone throughout the day, seldom moving, awaiting its parents to return briefly at dusk for another feeding. It is just now sunrise, the forest still deep in shadow as the tops of the tallest trees on the ridge begin to glow in the morning light.
The new parents first paired up the previous autumn, and in March began to engage in courtship behavior that lasted for several weeks. On the immensity of the ocean’s surface, these small robin-sized birds would come close together, point their beaks in the air, and then paddle rapidly across the water. Occasionally they’d dive and swim underwater in sync, or fly close together a few feet above the waves. They are both just three years old and because this is their first mating season, they’ve also made many flights inland scanning the forest for suitable nesting sites. After much searching they found an isolated drainage containing a number of large old conifers with substantial horizontal limbs covered in thick moss. They picked the huge Douglas fir tree by the creek, in part, perhaps, because it has good cover concealing some of its largest limbs, as well as a fairly unobstructed flight corridor to and from the drainage and out over the ridges.
Once found, they visited this site on and off to copulate, and then, two weeks later, in mid May they returned, where the female laid a single egg on the large branch 160 feet above the forest floor. Laid in a depressed bed of moss, the egg was a pale yellowish-green with darkish splotches, and the female immediately began to incubate it, while the male flew back to the ocean to forage and rest. The next morning at dawn, he returned and they traded places, and so it went for the next several weeks, one bird alternately incubating the egg for 24 hours while its mate rested and fed on the ocean. After 28 days the chick hatched, already covered in a thick yellowish down mottled with darker spots that blends in well with the moss on the limb. The adults tend the chick for only two days, by which time its body is able to regulate its own temperature and it’s able to move around a bit. Since then the parents have left it all alone, except for coming in to feed it at dawn and dusk, and have spent the rest of their time on the ocean.
It is clear and cool this early morning before dawn, with a quarter moon sailing high overhead in a starlit sky. As the pair flies over the second ridge and drops down into the drainage, the chick senses their approach and sits up and begins to actively look around. Again, they feed it one by one, this time the male first, and then the female. The chick is lucky this morning as its mother has two herring for it. When it has taken the second fish from her and swallowed it, she jumps from the branch to join her mate and then they are gone. They don’t know it, but when they return later that evening it will be to an empty nest.
The young bird settles back down on the mossy branch and takes a nap. For all of its life so far, the only world it has known is the limb upon which it sits and the immediate surrounding forest. Except for the short feeding visits by its parents at dawn and dusk, and the various small forest birds, bats, voles, squirrels, and insects who have been its neighbors, it has been alone, seldom moving, often sleeping. To remain as motionless as possible is a survival instinct of the chick, for since the brooding ended it has been largely defenseless against a number of predators, including the Steller’s jays and ravens who make it their business to know everything that happens in the forest. Despite these threats it has remained undiscovered and survived, and all the while changes have been taking place. It has grown quickly, its juvenile plumage developing beneath the camouflaging down, and recently its wings have lengthened rapidly. Just the evening before, after its parents left, the chick began to walk back and forth along the limb, looking down over the sides into the space below, flapping its wings and preening its feathers. Throughout most of this day now, it naps on and off as usual, occasionally snapping at insects and stretching its wings. But as the sun sets, it resumes the behavior of the previous night and, while preening, quickly removes the rest of its downy feathers, exposing the black and white pattern of its juvenile plumage.
A cooling twilight falls over the forest as the chick paces back and forth along the limb on its webbed feet. It has never flown before, but it is ready to try, and to stay alive it must learn quickly in the short space between where it now paces and the forest floor below. Like its parents, its wings are small in proportion to its body size, an adaptation useful when swimming underwater, but not particularly well-suited to gliding gracefully through the air. This means that once it jumps off the branch it will fall toward the ground, rapidly beating its wings to a blur before getting up enough wing-speed to actually fly. Then, though it has never been to the ocean before, it must fly directly there, over 36 miles of unknown terrain, in the deepening dusk. Once–or if–it makes it to the ocean, it must soon become skilled at swimming underwater and catching fish, or it will starve. Its parents are gone, and they will not be anywhere along the way to offer assistance, or to greet and help it on the vast rolling surface of the ocean. There can be no trial runs. If it fails or falters during any of these steps, hits a branch, say, and falls to the forest floor, or gets confused and flies in the wrong direction, chances are great that it will not survive. Finally, a little past an hour after sunset, the chick shivers its wings a last time, peers off the edge of the limb, and takes its heroic leap…
At least that’s what I tend to think of it as–an heroic leap–a true act of great courage, and even faith, which I know is anthropomorphizing a bit, but I don’t mind as long as it doesn’t get in my way of understanding what’s going on here. For while I’m aware of the dangers of infusing other creatures with our thoughts and emotions, I believe there’s a greater danger in denying inner lives to other beings by simply saying such phenomena as this bird’s amazing rite of passage is merely instinctive or automatic, as if that explains the whole of it.
For there’s a great mystery here; a great wisdom packed within the small, feathered body of this four-week-old chick that cannot be denied, nor perfectly understood by the human mind. We may call it instinct–defined within a species as an inborn or unlearned pattern of behavior that often arises as a response to some specific environmental prompting–but how this plays out within the individual bird encompasses something we may genuinely recognize as heart and spirit, or a will to live, and inner experiences such as fear, impulse, patience, exuberance, anxiety, eagerness, and also–why not?–joy. From nesting branch in terrestrial tree, to whirring through the invisible aerial realm, to swimming and diving in the watery world–this fledgling does it all, and all in one very effort-full doing. It’s an amazing and awe-inspiring thing to me. For I know of no other species of our feathered friends that grows up so alone, with so little parental care and protection in predatory surroundings, and then must take that first leap so alone, with no help or encouragement, and has to fly so far on its first flight in the right direction to a completely unknown environment, to either live or perish there by it’s own untested abilities.
Now, I should add here that the above story I’ve just told is necessarily fictional, with certain behavioral elements missing and others no doubt incorrect. Though based upon the most recent scientific literature available, as well as conversations I’ve had with leading biologists studying the elusive bird, and my own experience surveying forestlands for it, the fact remains that much of our understanding of the species is incomplete, which is another reason I find it so fascinating. For here we have a bird, right in our own backyard so to speak (if you happen to live within 50 miles of the Pacific Ocean from central California north up into Alaska), that is still such a mystery. For example, though it was first described over 200 years ago, it was not until 1974–five years after man first walked on the moon–that a nest of this species was finally found in North America. And where? Not in a burrow, or on the rocky ledge of a coastal cliff or island, like most other respectable seabirds, but up in a big old Douglas-fir tree in the Santa Cruz mountains south of San Francisco, California. And it would not be until 1990 for a nest to finally be found in British Columbia.
My 1988 edition of the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, printed back in the dark ages of ornithology, states, “It is now assumed that these [birds] nest high up in trees, up to several miles from the sea.” Several miles? Try 50 miles or more, we still don’t know for sure. The furthest occupied nesting site found so far was located 52 miles from the Pacific Ocean in Washington State. In fact, while the technologies of today allow us to peer back to the beginnings of the universe and to send small robotic vehicles to the surface of Mars to search for evidence of life there, right here and now there is still a whole lot that is not understood about this bird. We do not, for example, have much of a detailed life history of the bird, nor do we know what flight routes they travel, or which forests they use, how often they use them, and what, if anything, they use them for other than breeding. And while we have fairly reliable population estimates which document the steady decline of the birds throughout the Pacific Northwest (carried out by transects across near-shore waters where the bird’s feed and rest), we do not have any way of knowing the number of breeding pairs there are or the number of chicks who fledge successfully and make it to the ocean.
The main reason for this is simply that the bird’s lifestyle does not make it conducive to easy human observation, to wit–their ‘nests’ are merely depressions in a bed of moss, not visible structures, and are high up in enormous trees above a usually obscuring understory canopy; the birds are, as far as matters to a human observer on the ground, mostly silent and motionless around their ‘nests’; they generally fly to and from these inland sites near dawn and dusk, when light is dim; they are rather small and their breeding plumage is dullish brown and cryptic; and they can fly at speeds of up to 98 miles per hour, which is fast. To catch them on open water and outfit them with electronic gadgetry to monitor their habits has also proved to be extremely difficult, ineffective, and often fatal. Put that all together, and you have a bird that is very hard to observe, much less detect. To my way of thinking, this adds a singular air of wildness to it–for it has, to a large degree, eluded our natural and technological sensing abilities, thus escaping from our relentless efforts to quantify and qualify everything around us, and so sets the imagination and spirit free to wonder about the beauty and mystery of all creation.
Now, you may ask, what bird am I talking about here? Well, if you haven’t guessed already don’t be dismayed, because for all of the uniqueness of this bird’s known life history, it is still very unfamiliar to most people. Taxonomically, it is grouped in the Alcidae family, which includes the auks, murres, and puffins, and it has been given the scientific name of Brachyramphus marmoratus, meaning “short-billed, marbled”, which is somewhat descriptive, if not especially poetic. The bird is known among some of us who survey for it as the ‘mamu’, a combination of the first two letters of its two word common name: the marbled murrelet.
You may have heard something of this fascinating bird or at least recognize its name, for although it is a small and unpretentious bird that has had little dealings with human beings, it has achieved a sort of infamy among some of the more unenlightened citizens of the Pacific Northwest. For better or worse, and through no fault of its own, its life is now inescapably bound up with ours, its history and ours now entwined, and how that happened goes something like this:
Nearly ten million years ago, giant Metasequoias or dawn redwoods covered the coastal mountains of northwestern North America, and it is believed that in this long ago forest, ancestors of the marbled murrelet began to develop their unique breeding and nesting behaviors. Ten thousand years ago, when the first humans are thought to have ventured into this part of the world, a great unbroken swath of living forest still ran from what is now central California north into Alaska. Though the dawn redwoods were gone, some of the tallest, largest, and longest-living trees on earth now made up this forest, in an extraordinarily diverse mosaic of conifers of various species and age, from the colossal coastal redwoods of northern California and southern Oregon to the large coastal-bound Sitka spruces further north and the huge Douglas-firs of the inland coastal mountain ranges. Interspersed among these basic dominant tree types, other large conifers grew–western red, Port Orford, incense, and Alaska cedars, western hemlock, white and grand fir, and in the higher elevations, mountain hemlock and noble, Shasta red, and Pacific silver fir. Throughout the centuries, varying parts of this forest had been subjected periodically to great storms, fires, droughts, diseases, earthquakes, landslides, insect infestations, and other natural disturbances that helped make it a living forest of incredible diversity.
The earliest humans to populate this area lived mostly along the inland river valleys and the coast where food was most plentiful, and they used trees from the forest for shelter, fuel, clothing, tools, ceremonial decoration, food, and transportation. Their populations, however, were small and dispersed, especially compared to the number of people here now, and while they used fire widely to clear underbrush from oak woodlands and to promote the growth of favored plant species such as camas lilies in the valleys and huckleberries higher up in the mountains, the impact they made upon the immensity of the forest is thought to have been more or less negligible.
In 1775, some 9,750 years after these first humans arrived, or some 490 generations later, Spanish ships explored the ocean waters off the Pacific Northwest coast on a mission to plant crucifixes onshore and thereby extend their claims to New World lands northward from Mexico and California. A year later, British Captain James Cook on the Resolution sailed offshore seeking the fabled Northwest Passage to the Atlantic Ocean and, unsuccessful in that endeavor, he carried furs bartered from the native peoples of the coast to Siberia and China, and by discovering the great price paid for them there he touched off the lucrative fur trade which drove subsequent British and American trips to the region. The first American ship, the Lady Washington, with Captain Robert Gray in command, cruised offshore in 1788 and the following year, this time aboard the Columbia, he discovered the great River of the West which bears his ship’s name to this day. Over the next few decades, various disputes arose between these countries as to who rightfully ‘possessed’ what lands, however by 1846 the dust had cleared and the great forest was divided between three countries–the United States claiming ownership of what is now California, Oregon, and Washington; the British, British Columbia; and the Russians, Alaska, which in 1867 they then sold to the United States. Throughout this time, settlements rose up around ports along the coast, and the forest supplied them with wood for homes and fuel, and timber to build ships with. Soon the logs themselves became a profitable resource to market as lumber to growing cities along the Pacific coast, the Hawaiian Islands, and around the world. Those trees that were most accessible to waterways and ports were the first to be taken, but still much of the forest remained untouched, as the trees were huge and the cutting was done laboriously by hand, with axe and saw, and the rugged terrain made transportation of the felled giants extremely difficult.
As time went on and America’s population grew and technologies improved, all of this changed. From crude splash dams and yoked oxen teams dragging logs along primitive skid roads, to flumes and trestled railroads and steam-powered locomotives, to finally the coming of industrial forestry, where roads were engineered and dynamited and bulldozed across the ridged landscape, penetrating into the innermost fastnesses of the forest, where armies of men used the sharp-chiseled steel teeth of gasoline-powered chainsaws to cut the trees, great caterpillar-tracked skidders and powerful cable systems to yard them to landings, loaders to place them on logging trucks which they drove off to the mills and sawed into lumber, or to ports where they shipped the logs off whole to countries across the sea. Fires too took there toll on this forest. Where historic fire return intervals had once been measured in the centuries, with the coming of settlement and timber operations, clearing and slash fires–as well as those sparked by active logging shows–now regularly got out of control and burned enormous swaths of the forest which were then quickly ‘salvage’ logged by whatever means available. And all the while pairs of marbled murrelets returned each spring to breed and nest, each year to find more and more of the sheltering forest gone. When it was finally discovered that these birds used the large old trees of the Pacific Northwest forest to breed and nest in, much of that forest had already been cut down. And by the time it was determined that the murrelet was dependent upon these great old trees and would very likely go extinct without them, there was even less, and understandably, murrelet populations were found to be in rapid decline.
Finally, on September 28, 1992, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, responding to a petition submitted by the National Audubon Society more than four years earlier, determined the Washington, Oregon, and California populations of the marbled murrelet to be Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In their final rule, they cited that “The marbled murrelet is threatened by the loss and modification of nesting habitat (older forests) primarily due to commercial timber harvesting…the amount of nesting habitat has undergone a tremendous decline since the late 1800’s (most of which has taken place in the last 20 to 30 years), especially in the coastal areas of all three states.” Gill-net fishing operations and oil spills that kill the birds at sea were identified as lesser threats to the murrelets’ survival. Looking back, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that many species of animals who had evolved with this once great, living forest would have trouble surviving once that vast forest was reduced to small remnant patches surrounded by a raggedy mess of clearcuts and young, single-species tree farms–what is surprising is that there are still those who refuse to believe it.
It is 2:22 a.m. when I wake before the alarm, switch it off, and roll from my covers. I get into my work clothes, dowse my head with cold water from the sink, and dry off. Then I gather up my gear and the lunch I made before I went to bed, and head out into the dark. At the office, I meet up with my fellow wildlife surveyors and we hustle around grabbing radios, coffee, boots, etc., and then sign out on the board so that others will know where we’ll be. We’re all going to the same general area to survey this morning, so we all climb into one rig and on the hour drive out make small talk, joke around, or nap. It’s a little after 4 a.m. by the time we’re at the site, and pitch black out as one by one we disembark along the road to go alone down ‘trails’ to our survey stations. These ‘trails’ are really just temporary paths that we’ve partially cleared out beforehand with hand-tools and marked with flagging and little pieces of reflective tape–‘bright eyes’ that shine in the beams of our flashlights and headlamps–to help us stay on the trail. Some trails are short, just five minutes off the road, while others may be a scramble of an hour or more up and down steep talus slopes. I have a decent hike this morning, fairly long, but all downhill. A slight rain has begun to fall and I dig my raingear out of my pack and put it on. If it turns into a real downpour, it’ll make it too difficult to hear or see the birds when they come in, and we’ll have to repeat our surveys the next morning. With this in mind, I drop off the road and follow the bright eyes down into a steep drainage, tripping and sliding through Oregon grape, swordfern, salal, poison oak, ocean spray, hazelnut, and vine maple. I grab at the nearest trees and brush to check my ‘controlled’ fall down the slope, and get rewarded with showers of cold raindrops from the leaves above.
Fifteen minutes later, near the bottom of the drainage, the trail turns off to my left and contours above a rushing creek. Though not quite as treacherous as the precipitous trail down, the side-slope is as difficult to maneuver along, with wet fallen trees to climb over, rain-slick sticks to slip on, and loose rocks rolling out from beneath my boots. Several times I lose the trail in the darkness and have to stop and search for it again, looking for the reflective eyes or anything else that might indicate the route. Finally, 34 minutes after leaving the road I am at the survey station, one of my favorites, just below a grove of big old Douglas-firs, each one over six feet in diameter, with thick, furrowed bark, and huge limbs–nothing like it for miles around. I climb onto the back of one of these giants that fell a couple of years ago, and sitting down I quickly take out my survey gear–compass, miniature tape recorder, and binoculars. I’m a little early, but turn off the flashlight anyway and lift my eyes skyward, looking up and out to the southwest through a gash in the canopy that the tree I’m on made when it fell. The rain has stopped and a few stars now shine high above through moving clouds. Otherwise the darkness is nearly complete as I sit there steaming from the exertion of the hike, alone with my thoughts, the forest silent but for the soft chatter of the creek below and the occasional drip from the canopy above.
On September 24, 1997, a Recovery Plan for the Washington, Oregon, and California populations of the marbled murrelet was approved by the Regional Director, Region 1, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Portland, Oregon. This plan was developed by the Marbled Murrelet Recovery Team, established four and a half years earlier, in February 1993, and recognized that declining populations were primarily due to “the substantial loss of older forest nesting habitat…[The older forests] have been heavily harvested throughout the bird’s range and are severely degraded due to fragmentation. At the time of listing, old-growth forests throughout western Oregon and Washington had been reduced by about 82 percent of prelogging levels. Estimates for the amount of reduction of northern California’s coastal old-growth redwood forests range from approximately 85 to 96 percent.” The plan states as well that there is no quick fix to this problem, “even under optimum conditions…it will take 50 to 100 years or more to develop new suitable nesting habitat…,” and that “Any further substantial reduction in occupied nesting habitat…would hamper efforts to stabilize the population and the recovery of the species.”
Three and a half years previous to this, a forest management plan called the Northwest Forest Plan went into effect on April 13, 1994. This plan was aimed to break the legal gridlock that had occurred across the Pacific Northwest due to lawsuits alleging violations of the Endangered Species Act concerning both the marbled murrelet and another, more notorious, avian species that had been listed as Threatened in 1990, the northern spotted owl. The Northwest Forest Plan divided up the public lands throughout the owl and murrelet’s range into seven different land allocations, the two primary ones being Late-Successional Reserves (LSRs), and Matrix lands. The LSRs were designed to conserve enough of what was left of the ancient forest to ensure the survival of both the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet, as well as to protect and/or manage ‘recruitment’ habitat to provide suitable habitat for them in the future. Thus, these Reserves included everything from parts of the remaining old growth forest to recently clearcut lands. The Matrix lands were set aside primarily to provide timber to the wood products industry, and they too included parts of the remaining old growth forest, as well as areas of second, and even third growth forest. Not surprisingly, not everybody was happy with this arrangement. Some felt that too much of the public forest had been ‘locked up,’ and some felt that to allow the cutting of any more of the ancient forest was a terrible mistake.
At any rate, the network of Late-Successional Reserves that the Northwest Forest Plan provides is the foundation that the Recovery Plan for the marbled murrelet is based upon, with 78 percent of the 32 critical habitat units identified in the plan within the reserve boundaries. Recovery actions that the plan recommends include, in the short term, “…maintaining potential suitable habitat in large contiguous blocks…maintaining habitat distribution and quality…” and in the long term, “…increasing the amount, quality and distribution of suitable nesting habitat, decreasing fragmentation, protecting ‘recruitment’ habitat, providing replacement habitat through silvicultural techniques, and improving marine habitat quality.” The plan also acknowledges that “A better understanding of the species is essential in order to adequately refine this recovery strategy…” and so calls for “Monitoring populations and habitat, and surveying potential breeding habitat to identify potential nesting areas…”
And that’s why I’m out here.
As the daylight grows with the dawn, I spy a huckleberry bush nearby the log I’m sitting on, covered with ripe red berries. Though I’m supposed to keep my eyes on the sky every moment of the survey, that goal is unrealistic–you do have to look down and work the kinks out of your neck every now and then, and occasionally there are odd sounds that grab your attention, as well as weather events such as rain or low clouds which can obscure your visual detection efforts–and so there is an allowance of twelve minutes for these interruptions built within the survey period. Anyway, I can’t resist the call of the huckleberries, and go over and pluck half a dozen or so, leaving the rest for the chipmunks and bears and other berry lovers of the forest. The huckleberries are perfect–juicy, plump, sweet, and delicious–wow!
As I’m munching on them, I hear a crazy laughing cry and see a pileated woodpecker swoop overhead and land vertically on the trunk of a nearby western red cedar. I freeze, but it sees me anyway, strange beast that I am there in the deep forest, standing upright in my skin of waterproof fabrics. It wants nothing to do with me and immediately jumps away from the tree and swoops off across the drainage, giving its maniacal cry once more. It is a sound that always reminds me of something wild and primeval, and for a moment I imagine this patch of forest I’m in is still part of a great, unbroken belt of immense trees ranging for two thousand miles north to south. It is a marvelous, awe-inspiring vision, but one that quickly fades, for I have seen too much of what the landscape looks like now to ever forget. I see it every day–the ‘managed’ forest–a dissected, clearcut, and torn-apart land that, if you work in the woods, there is truly no escaping from. This is the most painful part of the job, seeing the past and ongoing abuse of the land every day. While I may be able to glimpse in my imagination what that original forest was once like, the reality is that I know the remnant patch of trees I’m in is just that, a remnant, perhaps one-quarter-square mile or 160 acres in all, surrounded all about by clearcuts and young single-species tree plantations that I will see mile after mile on my way back to the office. It is something I try not to think about too much, and I push it from my mind and concentrate on the flavor of the huckleberries and the sky above.
I did not begin working in the forest looking for marbled murrelets. I began as some others have, by running a chainsaw all day long– thinning overgrown properties to reduce fuel loads, cutting brush on replanted clearcuts, and felling trees on small diameter logging projects. Then one season I managed to land a job surveying the forest itself–recording the species, age, size, and distribution of trees, as well as inventorying the underlying shrub and herbaceous layer. Hey! now this was something different, I thought–hiking around in the woods with a compass, map, field guide, hand lens, measuring tape, notebook and pencil, instead of busting it up and down slopes with a chainsaw and clumsy, swinging plastic jugs of oil and gasoline. What had been a world of adrenaline-primed physical aggression, complete with earplugs, eye protection, chaps, hardhat, gloves, burning gas and oil fumes, and a powerful, loud, vibrating machine with spinning steel teeth in my hands capable of cutting through wood or flesh lickity-split, now became one of quiet observation. One day while studying small plants on the forest floor, I heard a whoosh-whoosh-whooshing sound coming my way, and quickly standing, I felt a tingle go down my spine and the hair on the back of my neck stiffen. Eyes wide, I glimpsed some movement and then saw a raven pass by through the trees, its wings creating the rushing sound as they beat the air, and I laughed at the quiet to be able to hear such a thing. Alone in the woods or higher elevation forests, sights, sounds, and smells became magnified. I remember hearing the drumming beats of a male ruffed grouse for the first time one spring, the way you feel it in your chest like a fluttering heartbeat rather than hearing it with your ears. Or the rich organic smell of a handful of dark, moist forest soil. Or the drip-drip-drip of water-drops falling from tall trees pulling moisture from low clouds drifting through the forest. All kinds of things–things that you would never notice unless you’re quiet and paying attention. Simple curiosity about all that I heard and saw out there sparked me to buy and read books on natural history. And such are the ways of life that one thing naturally leads to another, and in this manner, one survey led to another for me–from forest plants to terrestrial mollusks, to small mammals, and then to birds.
There are basically two ways to survey for the murrelet on land. One is by radar, as there are few birds in the Pacific Northwest capable of such speed as the murrelet on a straightaway flight, and fewer still that commonly fly so fast so early in the morning. By setting up mobile radar stations in the field it is possible to detect them as they fly by. One drawback to this method is that it is currently quite expensive, and another is that radar is ineffective for detecting birds against any obscuring background, such as near the forest canopy. Therefore, while this method may be useful for detecting murrelets flying over a given area, it is not considered adequate proof they are actually occupying that area.
For that, there is another way of surveying, one that is far more primitive–get some trained, warm human bodies out there to look and listen for them. It goes like this–for two hours, from 45 minutes before sunrise to an hour and 15 minutes afterwards, you must stand or sit in the forest as quietly, patiently, and alertly as possible, staring up at whatever patch of sky you might happen to find through an opening in the forest canopy in the hopes of seeing a bird, or multiple birds, fly by. As mentioned before, the marbled murrelet has evolved to fly underwater in pursuit of small fish and so the surface area of its wings is low in proportion to its body weight (a thing called wing-loading), which means that if it doesn’t want to fall out of the sky it must constantly and energetically flap its wings. These continuous, rapid wingbeats can make the murrelet look frenetic in flight, and that, together with its size, chunky profile, bent wing shape, and great air speed, give the bird a distinctive appearance in the air that has led to various descriptive names for it, one being “the flying potato.” And that is what you are hoping to see fly over the opening in the forest canopy.
You also listen for the bird, either for its vocalizations–in particular its distinctive seabird keer or cry–or the sound of its wingbeats, or the unusual jet sound that the bird’s feathers make when it dives and which really does sound like a jet screaming by, with less volume of course (at least on tape, for I’ve never heard it in person). Unfortunately, it’s thought that breeding birds rarely vocalize when coming inland, so your hope of detecting one of them may be limited to the chance it will fly close enough for you to hear one of the other sounds, or that it will fly directly over the patch of sky, the hole in the canopy you’re looking up through, and that you will be awake and attentive at exactly that moment and recognize it. As you can imagine, this can be a rather frustrating experience, or at least a discouraging one, for it is a job with little chance of observing the species you’re surveying for–in fact, after working two seasons and completing nearly a hundred surveys, I have seen only one bird so far, and that at a known and historically occupied site. Given this, and the early morning hours spent in the dark forest, it is not a good job for pessimists or for anyone with unreasonable fears of savage, man-eating bears, cougars, and bobcats– not to mention ticks, spiders, mosquitoes, no-see-ums, cantankerous mountain beavers, and Bigfoot. It is also, for sure, not a good job for anyone looking to get rich. It is a good job though for those that enjoy listening to birds wake up with the dawn and that don’t mind being alone with their thoughts in a quiet forest. I sometimes refer to it as enforced meditation, and it works for me.
I have come to believe that we are often blinded or prejudiced by our vocation–what we do for a living and are concerned with every day–me as much as anyone else. I have this idea because I still run a chainsaw every now and then on fuel reduction jobs, and after just a day or two cutting down hundreds of trees, it is impossible for me to look at any tree the same way. I might visit my folks for dinner, say, and walk into their backyard and see all the trees that are familiar to me from childhood–trees that my brothers and sister and I climbed as kids, that served as bases for our backyard baseball games, that have grown as we have grown–and all I think of when I see them is, where do I want to drop this tree, where do I want to make the face cut, which side do I want to stand on, and what’s in the way when it falls. It’s a way of thinking that is very useful, indeed necessary, when you are trying to cut and fall trees as quickly and safely as possible, but it is not useful for much else. And it takes a while for this mindset to diminish, until I can see the trees again as familiar companions and as living organisms–safe again from the chainsaw of my mind. In the same way, though in a much more enlightening sense, doing quiet surveys in the forest has conditioned my mind to certain ways of thinking about things. By repeated observation and study I am now more keenly aware of the ecology of a forest, of the life processes that create and sustain it, and of the interconnectedness of its organisms, and so I am more biased in that regard. And I feel fortunate for that, for, despite its present degraded condition, the world has become a greater place than I ever imagined it to be.
All in all, the Recovery Plan for the marbled murrelet is a sound document and if followed provides some hope for the species continued survival. However, it does have its worrisome aspects, such as the time commitment required–something our increasingly impatient, shortsighted, and attention-deficit culture is little suited to tolerate. As the Recovery Plan states, “the length of time necessary to develop most new nesting habitat (100-200 years)” is vital. This is primarily because the marbled murrelet does not build a nest, but lays its one egg on the horizontal limb of a tree. Understandably, the larger the limb is, the less chance the egg has of rolling off, and these large limbs–and the bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) that build up soft beds for the egg to be laid upon–do not ordinarily develop in trees until they lose their adolescent symmetry and grow to a fairly mature age. To see one of these older trees is to see a tree with some real character, 150 to 300 feet tall, with big, bulky limbs, two feet thick or more, jutting out from the trunk high above, sometimes broken off or grown into fantastic shapes. The bark of these magnificent trees is deeply furrowed, and the diameters of the trunks astounding, reaching from four to twenty feet across in some species (although anything in the four to seven foot range is pretty exceptional these days). This great size and irregularity of shape are products of age, of growth and the weathering of storms, diseases, droughts, fires, and other natural disturbances over the decades and centuries, and they simply do not manifest themselves except over time.
Unfortunately, time is not necessarily on the murrelets’ side. Well over half of the coastal forestlands in western Washington, Oregon, and northern California are privately owned and intensively worked as high production tree farms on ever-shorter clearcut rotations. And given the board feet and potential profit that the timber industry sees in the remaining public forests, it should not be surprising that they have contested all conservation plans and species protections since their beginnings, and will do so long into the future. In all the time the Recovery Plan requires for current suitable habitat to be protected and for new habitat to grow to sufficient size, year after year, this pressure will continue, and year after year there will be decisions made nearly 3,000 miles away in Washington D.C. that will effect the marbled murrelet’s survival, for better or worse. Just so, the Northwest Forest Plan, the “backbone” of the murrelet recovery plan, has been under attack even while it was being written, and for all the usual reasons–it ‘locks up’ too much of the forest from logging, it is destroying the economy of the Pacific Northwest, and it is completely unnecessary. According to this view, it’s not the automation of lumber mills, the exportation of raw logs overseas, and the liquidation of ninety percent of the original forest by unsustainable cutting practices that has caused the shutting down of mills, the loss of jobs, the disruption of families, and indeed, the complete economic breakdown of so many rural communities across the Pacific Northwest. No, it’s the ‘environmentalists’ using the Endangered Species Act, ‘liberal’ courts, and the marbled murrelet–along with the much maligned northern spotted owl and other old-growth forest dependent species–to keep the logs from rolling out of the hills, logs that would somehow revive a way of life that is long gone. As the faithful maintain, there are more trees now than there ever were before and the birds are doing fine, there’s no problem. Despite such arguments and assurances from the timber industry, the Recovery Plan and the Northwest Forest Plan are still in place. At least for now. Again, the fact remains that all of our laws and regulations, including all management plans as well as the Endangered Species Act, are at the mercy of shifting political winds and the decisions by far-away courts. For example, just this morning on the way out to the survey site, there was a local congressman on the news calling for the allowed extirpation of the marbled murrelet in California, Oregon, and Washington, citing that there are healthy populations up in Alaska, and the economy of the Pacific Northwest needs to cut down the rest of the ancient forest.
As I sit on the giant log near the bottom of the drainage looking up at the paling sky, it seems a strange and amazing thing to me that we’ve gotten to this point. How did so much of this vast and ancient living forest get cut down? I know, of course, that much of the forest was sawed into lumber that was used in the construction of millions of buildings and homes, and that in this manner numerous species’ habitat was converted into our habitat. But to see the clearcuts and tree plantations across the familiar and often steep landscape and then realize that the same thing has happened throughout the entire Pacific Northwest is staggering simply in terms of magnitude. The sheer industrial, mechanized effort that went into it was massive, at the time far surpassing any other similar act of deforestation ever attempted by any civilization in the history of the world. For the forest that was here was the greatest temperate coniferous forest on earth, with the greatest number of the tallest, largest, long-lived species on the planet, and to cut all those colossal trees down and haul them off and so reduce this once-great forest to its current state of remnant patches surrounded by clearcuts and young tree farms took a truly monumental and single-minded effort. Did we really need the threatened extinction of any species to tell us what simple common sense should have been telling us all along, that we were taking too much too fast,? And now, is there really no room for the marbled murrelet in the forests of the Pacific Northwest anymore? More to the point, if the marbled murrelet never existed, or any other protected species for that matter, or, say there was no such thing as the Endangered Species Act to prescribe and protect critical habitats for them, would these remnant patches of the ancient living forest still be standing here now, twenty years later? I don’t think so, and again this is an amazing thing to me. Do we really see no other value in these forests than timber products and short-term profit? Is our understanding really so small and our economic need truly so great?
Other birds have been waking up, some of them year-long residents, others migratory species that have come here from as far away as South America to breed and nest–already I’ve heard the tinkling, swirling notes of Swainson’s thrushes, the three buzzy whistling tones of various varied thrushes, the long rippling songs of winter wrens, the dog-whistle call of a Pacific-slope flycatcher, the soft hooting of a band-tailed pigeon, the purring trill of an orange-crowned warbler, the nasally yank-yank-yank-ing of red-breasted nuthatches, and now sitting on the log, I hear a raven croak from above and I think that it’s not about the marbled murrelet really, or any other old-growth dependent species–it’s about us. What does it say about us, that the marbled murrelet is in trouble and that we need such a thing as the Endangered Species Act to keep us from causing its extinction? What does it say about us and the future of our species? What are we doing with this world and what are we thinking? And that’s it really, it’s the result of our thinking–the threadbare beliefs that lie behind the irrational expediency of our economy and the arrogance of our forestry culture, not to mention the denial to see what is before our very eyes–that has led us to nearly destroy the entire, ancient native forest of the Pacific Northwest, the greatest temperate, coniferous forest on Earth, such as we will never see again.
On the other hand, the fact that we do have such a thing as the Endangered Species Act is an encouraging sign of at least some enlightenment, for it explicitly gives species other than our own the right to life, and by doing so acknowledges our kinship with all of creation and indicates that we have not lost all connection to the great community of life that we are but a part of–at least not yet. The marbled murrelet, of course, knows nothing about the tribulations that its existence has caused us human beings, nor is it aware of any Recovery Plan, Northwest Forest Plan, or Endangered Species Act. It will however continue to come inland every spring to nest and raise its young as its kind have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years, and it is our choice, as the citizens who own these public forests, whether or not they will have a place to come back to.
I tend to believe that the murrelets’ best chance for a brighter future is our best chance as well. For it seems self-evident that by protecting the murrelets’ ancient forest habitat and by allowing other parts of the forest to recover and grow to a sufficient age, it will not only increase the marbled murrelet’s odds for survival, but that it will also immeasurably enrich our own lives. After all, the forests that provide shelter for the murrelet are the same forests that provide healthy habitats for many other plant and animal species, from black bears and salmon species to Pacific giant salamanders, yew trees, arboreal voles, and truffles, as well as providing us with clean air and water, environmental stability, and vital opportunities for scientific study, aesthetic appreciation, physical recreation, and spiritual regeneration. Given all this, would it not be less of a world without the marbled murrelet and the forests it depends upon, poorer in ways far beyond the ability of any accountant to measure, and poorer in things that we can never get back? Which is what it finally comes down to–what kind of a world do we want to live in? What kind of a world do we want to pass on to our children and our children’s children to live in? It is in our power to choose.
When the survey ends, I bow to the beauty of the day and am grateful that there is still a place like this left, however small. It offers possibility, and not just for the murrelet. Though as usual, I haven’t heard or seen a marbled murrelet this morning, I feel that they may still be around–given the secretive nature of the species, it’s quite possible that in the blink of an eye, I just missed seeing one pass by. There may indeed be a nestling sitting on a branch in the grove above, perhaps just fed by its parents and waiting for the evening to come when it will make its great leap into the unknown. If so, I wish it all the courage and luck it will need. Then I throw on my pack and begin hiking up and out of the drainage to the top of the ridge where the others will be coming to meet me on the road.
It’s a beautiful afternoon in early spring, nine months after I hiked out of that drainage, with all the valleys and rounded foothills along the Umpqua River bright green with new grass, and the surrounding ridges and mountains shining white with the new snow of a recent storm. The sun shines intermittently through passing white clouds with a cold wind blowing from the northwest, and I’ve just carried a spotting scope and tripod up along a ridge road through a square mile of private timber land, some of which has recently been clearcut and replanted, the rest of which is being actively logged, with a yarder tooting away every few minutes. I’ve made it past there and set up the scope on the rim of a rock quarry overlooking a sixty acre remnant of older forest on public land, looking for a very different bird, although one that has shared the same unfortunate circumstance of being listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as threatened with extinction. In the past this bird had been widely shot out of ignorance or to collect a bounty or to sell its body parts, its nesting habitat recklessly destroyed, and then finally it suffered through the devastating effects caused by the widespread use of the insecticide DDT that nearly did it in. In 1963, there were only 417 nesting pairs remaining alive throughout the lower 48 states. Protections through the Endangered Species Act to curb the destruction of its nesting habitat, and the banning of DDT by the Environmental Protection Agency have allowed it to recover and to prosper so that as of 2007 there were nearly 10,000 nesting pairs and they were formally delisted.
After little more than an hour of watching and waiting, an adult soars out in front of the forest, its gleaming white head and tail feathers starkly contrasting against its darker brown body, and making it fairly easy to spot against the dark green background of the forest as the bird flies up and perches in the top of a tall tree. It’s Haliaeetus leucocephalus, the bald eagle, and she begins actively preening and stretching as if she may have just come off a nest. Sixty-four minutes later she jumps off her perch, flies out, and then drops straight down into a nest built of sticks in the top third of a large, sparsely-branched Douglas-fir tree. The male takes flight and she rearranges a few sticks and then settles down to resume her incubating duties. It’s a new nest for this site and exciting to see such behavior from these magnificent birds.
Although this nesting area is thought to be a bit outside the nesting range of the marbled murrelet, where the ranges of the two species overlap they often use the same remnant older forests. This is not uncommon, as golden eagles, northern spotted owls, northern goshawks, pileated woodpeckers, and many other species require these older, intact forest stands with large, structurally complex trees and snags to nest and raise their young in. In fact, in the middle Umpqua Valley where I work, all four of the known golden eagle nesting sites, and 17 of the 21 known bald eagle nesting sites, are in remnant patches of old-growth forest on public land (the others are in large trees remaining on privately-owned land). In the end it becomes a fairly simple equation: cut down the rest of the native forest remnants and there will be few eagles, no marbled murrelets, nor much else.
There is a chance however that the marbled murrelet will be as fortunate as the bald eagle, if we have the patience and wisdom to give it the time and forests it requires, and if we are able to pass on that patience and wisdom to our children. If so, it may be that in a hundred or two hundred years from now the marbled murrelet will once again be abundant off the shores of the Pacific Northwest, and that our grandchildren’s grandchildren will wander in the recovering forest filled with awe by all they see and hear–perhaps even the wild careening keer keer keer! of the marbled murrelet itself–and hold an enduring gratitude for the forethought we displayed when we were stewards of these lands. In the meantime, spring is here and pairs of marbled murrelets have started to return to what’s left of the native ancient forest to breed another generation of downy chicks that in their turn will take their heroic leaps into space. Let’s wish them well on their journey.
(This essay is available as a PDF file: Bless the Mamu.)