39th Marbled Murrelet Nest Discovery Day!

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Portrait of the Alcid as a Young Chick. This drawing, by Ken Carlson, appeared inThe Wilson Bulletin in 1975.

  Thirty nine years ago today, the accidental discovery of a downy marbled murrelet on the mossy branch of a 220-foot-high Douglas-fir solved one of the last great ornithological mysteries in North America. 

   On August 7, 1974, a tree trimmer named Hoyt Foster was working his way up the Douglas-fir in Big Basin Redwood State Park in California's Santa Cruz Mountains and nearly stepped on the murrelet chick that was hunkered down on a wide mossy branch 148 feet up the tree. Foster's discovery ended the search for the nesting site of the marbled murrelet, a seabird whose secretive breeding habitats had eluded scientists for 185 years.

   Though the murrelet is relatively easy to spot in the nearshore waters along the Pacific Northwest Coast where it forages, this robin-sized species of alcid seems to have been designed to avoid detection: its high-speed and crepuscular flights into the coastal old-growth forests, its camouflaging breeding plumage, and its silence at the nest contributed to its success at avoiding detection--by predators and birders alike.

    The chick discovered on August 7 was the critical link that enabled scientists to document the murrelet's dependence on the remaining mature and old-growth forests for their survival. Only in these forests can the marbled murrelet find branches wide enough and high enough to safely accommodate their egg and chick during the two-month breeding season. 

   This little chick (below) lead to the eventual listing of the marbled murrelet as a threatened and endangered species in Washington, Oregon, and California under the Endangered Species Act in 1992.

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The downy murrelet chick discovered in Big Basin Redwood State Park in 1974 and now in the collection of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Note the black feathers of the chick's juvenal plumage growing beneath the down--a sign that this chick was near fledging.  (Photos, here and above, by Maria M. Ruth)

  In 1970,the editors ofAudubon Field Notes offered a $100 prize for the first verified discovery of the nest of "this stubbord holdout." No one every claimed the prize--Hoyt Foster discovered, but did not document the discovery with an account and photographs. That job was completed by ornithologist Laurence C. Binford, biologist Steven W. Singer, and California Dept. of Fish and Game biologist Bruce G. Elliott inThe Wilson Bulletin (Vol. 87, No. 3) in September 1975.

 Read the full story of the discovery in my book, Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murreletjust reissued in paperback by Mountaineers Books.