Environment

Meet the endangered bird that nests high above Fairy Creek

Marbled murrelets stand as an indictment of BC’s lack of action to protect species at risk

By Andrew Findlay
July 4, 2021
Environment

Meet the endangered bird that nests high above Fairy Creek

Marbled murrelets stand as an indictment of BC’s lack of action to protect species at risk

Marbled murrelet. Photo: Else9 / Flickr
Environment

Meet the endangered bird that nests high above Fairy Creek

Marbled murrelets stand as an indictment of BC’s lack of action to protect species at risk

By Andrew Findlay
July 4, 2021
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Meet the endangered bird that nests high above Fairy Creek
Marbled murrelet. Photo: Else9 / Flickr

It was 3 am and Monica Mather stood on a gravel bar along the Tsitika River northwest of Sayward. Her eyes watched the sky for movement, and her ears were attuned to the marbled murrelet’s distinctive whistle. She waited patiently. They say the early bird gets the worm, and the same goes for birders. The sunrise, barely a glow on the eastern horizon, began to illuminate the valley. During the summer breeding season, the mysterious marbled murrelet flies from the sea back to its rainforest nest early every morning carrying a single fish for its hatchling.      

Loggers used to call them “fog larks” for their early morning appearances, and their future is just as hazy: this little penguin-shaped bird that could fit in your palm remains one of BC’s most challenging conservation conundrums. Marbled murrelets need old-growth forest for nesting habitat, which puts them in direct competition with a logging industry that’s reaching the last of the province’s unprotected old trees.

The solution, then, should be straightforward: protect the trees in which they’re known to be nesting with a generous buffer to prevent disturbing or destroying their nests. If only it were that simple.

“Marbled murrelets are a very cryptic bird,” says Mather, a Nanaimo-based provincial government biologist who has been mapping their habitat for most of her career. 

They are so cryptic that in more than 20 years of standing on bridges, logging roads, and gravel sandbars in predawn darkness waiting for the flight of marbled murrelets, Mather has never seen an active nest. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the first marbled murrelet nest was discovered in Canada. Two decades later they’d start making appearances on endangered species lists.

Though they spend most of their lives at sea, they breed and nest during summer in solitary pairs in old-growth trees usually within 30 km but sometimes as far as 70 km from the coast. Males and females alternate tending the nest and flying out to sea to forage for favorite foods like Pacific sand lance. Unlike most seabirds, marbled murrelets are anti-colonial, preferring to go it alone and avoid detection over safety in numbers. They are also finicky when it comes to nesting habitat. Rather than rocky islands and sea cliffs that are preferred by other seabirds like their close cousins, murres and puffins, marbled murrelets fly deep into the temperate rainforest searching for the perfect nesting site. It’s always an old tree, preferably a Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, hemlock, or balsam, with thick branches high in the canopy that are carpeted with a bed of moss. 

After finding the ideal branch on the perfect tree nowhere near another nesting pair, the mating marbled murrelets build a nest by padding out a depression in the moss. Scientists believe this is their way of avoiding predators, like goshawks at the seashore, or jays, crows, and ravens in the forest who are challenged to find these birds whose mottled brown summer plumage renders them well camouflaged. However, this nesting adaptation that’s so critical for their reproductive success is also the very attribute that makes them vulnerable. When old-growth forests were abundant on the BC Coast, so too were marbled murrelets.

“There are reports from the 1900s of hundreds of thousands of marbled murrelets flying coastal waterways,” Mather says.

But a long decline ensued. They were listed as threatened by COSEWIC (Committee on the status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) in 2002 and by BC in 1995. Today scientists estimate between 90,000 and 150,000 live between the southern tip of Vancouver Island and the Alaskan panhandle.

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In the 1980s and ‘90s, the words “marbled murrelet” became a political hot button. The bird’s inextricable dependence on old trees was a powerful narrative for forest conservation activists. But they were more than a conservation mascot; marbled murrelets were headed for trouble. So, in 2003, the federal government officially listed them under the Species at Risk Act (SARA.) The designation wasn’t based on an accurate population census, but rather on a rational assumption that given the rate of old growth logging on the BC coast, the marbled murrelet’s nesting habitat was destined for disappearance. Despite the designation, not much happened at the federal level, besides making marbled murrelets a line item on the species at risk public registry. Then in 2012, five environmental groups launched a lawsuit against the feds for failing to put forward a recovery plan for marbled murrelets, as well as Pacific humpback whales, Nechako white sturgeon and southern mountain caribou. The lawsuit lit a fire under Environment Canada, which led to the release in 2014 of the Marbled Murrelet Recovery Plan. The plan set concrete goals: to stabilize populations above 70% of 2002 levels by the year 2032 and to prevent further declines after that year. It noted the numerous threats facing the bird, including changing ocean conditions from climate change and potential impacts on food sources, oil spills, entrapment in fishing gear, and avian predators. But of all the threats marbled murrelets face, loss of old growth nesting habitat was considered mission critical for its survival.     

Ottawa made the recovery plan but it fell on provincial authorities to follow through with a response, given that BC has authority over most Crown land within its borders. BC has no endangered-species laws of its own, and the province has been criticized by the auditor general for fumbling the protection of conservation lands, while a group of BC scientists released an open letter in November 2020, excoriating the province for allowing industry to continue degrading endangered species’ habitats.          

The recovery plan divided the province into seven marbled murrelet conservation regions. However, the three southernmost regions, West and North Vancouver Island, East Vancouver Island, and Southern Mainland Coast, are the ones keeping Mather awake at night. Environment Canada pegs the number of marbled murrelets in these three areas at 21,150, 1,500 and 6,500, respectively. Most scientists agree that if urgent conservation measures aren’t taken soon, the bird could disappear from the south coast. These days that’s the focus of Mather’s work: to identify potential tracts of Crown land on this heavily human-altered landscape that could be set aside as Wildlife Habitat Areas, a conservation tool under the Forest and Range Practices Act. But considering that so much of the old forest on Vancouver Island has either already been cut or is privately owned, it’s like picking over the scraps.

“We’re in danger of slipping below the threshold of acceptable habitat loss on the South Island,” admits Mather.     

A poster at the Fairy Creek blockades' Eden Camp describes marbled murrlets; they are known to nest in the area. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily

Spotting marbled murrelets near the seashore isn’t hard if you know what to look or listen for. Mather often sees them flying above Departure Bay close to her Nanaimo home. Many of us have likely observed them from the deck of a BC Ferries ship without even knowing it. But you’d have better luck finding a dime on a beach than you would stumbling across one of their nests. It takes money and time, and the best way is to get the birds to betray themselves.      

Radio telemetry involves capturing and tagging marbled murrelets at night when they’re sleeping on the water, and then allowing them to return to their nests. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, biologists from Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Wildlife Ecology used the method to locate more than 180 nests in Desolation Sound and Clayoquot Sound. It took long, early hours and lots of coffee to get it done. All the nests were found in large mature trees and quite often in islands of old-growth surrounded by a landscape scarred by industrial clearcut logging. Though labour-intensive and expensive, the project dramatically showed the dependence of marbled murrelets on mossy, ancient forests—without them, the scientists concluded, the species is done.

“What makes things difficult is that this bird has a direct conflict with forestry,” says David Lank, an SFU ecologist who worked on this radio tagging project that helped inform the 2014 federal recovery plan. “On southern Vancouver Island it’s pretty sparse. Most of the suitable habitat has been cut.”

Lank is talking about places like Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. In 2005, a pair of marbled murrelets tagged by Washington State researchers flew north across the border to build a nest in the upper Fairy Creek watershed, smack in the middle of a then-recently designated 605-hectare marbled murrelet WHA. It was yet more compelling evidence that demonstrated just how far this little seabird will travel to find a suitable spot to lay an egg and rear its young. (That protected area persists to this day, preventing the better part of the Fairy Creek watershed from being logged.)

Mather knows the province needs to do more if this rainforest specialist has any chance of survival on Vancouver Island and the southern mainland coast. A so-called Land Use Order Regulation is under review to establish new WHAs and Old Growth Management Areas (OGMA) for marbled murrelets. If approved, a further 14,500 hectares of forest would be taken out of the hands of logging companies. It would add to the more than 500 marbled murrelet WHAs that the province has established over the past two decades along the BC coast between Washington and Alaska.      

But according to Rachel Holt, a forest ecologist based in Nelson who has studied the province’s old-growth management extensively, WHAs are far from a perfect wildlife conservation tool.

“It can mean almost anything, and it depends on what it’s designated for specifically,” Holt says. “And they will tend to be on steep slopes, and lower-value forest for harvesting. Then they [government] often overlay OGMAs on top of those, to have less timber supply impact.”

Old Growth Management Areas are even more flimsy, according to Darwyn Coxson, a University of Northern BC biologist. In 2020, Coxson published research into OGMAs in the Kispiox forest region near Smithers. He concluded that many of them were too small to have any lasting ecological impact.

And that’s exactly what BC’s marbled murrelets need: lasting ecological protection. In these times of heightened tension and conflict around logging of the province’s remaining unprotected old growth, a successful future for this unusual rainforest specialist and its cryptic ways will be a critical test of BC’s ability to save a threatened species. The marbled murrelet may be small, but its nesting habitat requirements are vast and specific. Just a moss covered branch that’s high in the canopy of a centuries-old tree, close— but not too close—to the sea. 

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