Keeping forests crumb clean is critical to their survival

When you visit local redwood forests, you play a role in the survival of an elusive seabird called the marbled murrelet (pronounced mer-let). During the spring and summer, mated pairs fly inland to lay a single egg and raise their chick in the most unusual place: the wide, mossy branch of an old-growth tree.

In fact, the marbled murrelet’s secretive nest location was North America’s last great ornithological mystery until 1974, when a treeworker cleaning up after a freak snowstorm discovered a chick with webbed feet high up in a Douglas fir tree at a nearby Big Basin Redwoods State Park campground. Twentieth century loggers called these now-endangered birds fog larks. Amazingly, some still nest in the Santa Cruz Mountains’ remaining old-growth trees.

marbled murrelet floating on the ocean

When people leave garbage or food waste in the forest, it attracts Steller’s jays, ravens and crows, which scientists have learned are the primary predators of marbled murrelet eggs and chicks. By practicing Leave No Trace principles and packing out everything you pack in you are leaving the forest crumb clean, as local land managers call it, and helping to protect marbled murrelets.

In Midpen preserves, our staff biologists are doing their part by conducting new research to find out what areas are still being used by the marbled murrelet to help protect them.

Midpen biologist Karine Tokatlian conducts surveys for these robin-sized birds at dawn. As the sun rises, she watches for parents flying at great speeds back to their nest from the sea where they feed and catch fish for their chick. She also listens for their gull-like cries of keer, keer, which sound out of place in the redwoods. When she can’t be there listening and looking herself, she uses devices to record forest sounds and software that analyzes the recordings for the marbled murrelets’ unique calls and wingbeats.

a woman looking up at a redwood forest canopy

“We know marbled murrelets are still here, though not in great numbers. Last summer I saw and heard only one flying overhead at dawn in Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve. It was an amazing moment,” Tokatlian said. “The recording devices picked up additional detections as well.”

More than half of marbled murrelet breeding habitat in the Santa Cruz Mountains was impacted by the CZU fire in 2020. Luckily, the fire did not reach Midpen preserves, which could provide refuge to marbled murrelets seeking new nesting areas this year. Regional land managers and researchers are coordinating to monitor how these birds are adjusting to the changed landscape.

“All of these pieces of information help us as land managers understand how we can better support marbled murrelets,” Tokatlian said.

Hear a recording of marbled murrelets and journey into the redwoods with Karine to learn more about our new research.