The California common murre (Uria aalge californica) is a football-sized seabird with the tuxedo colors of penguins — except it can both fly in the air and dive down to 500 feet underwater.
This summer, seabird ecologists from the USGS Western Ecological Research Center and Channel Islands National Park are reporting that common murres are nesting in the Channel Islands for the first time since 1912.
A photo taken by Adams and Felis on July 12, 2011 on Prince Island. Image Credit: USGS.
The new colony is situated within bounds of Channel Islands National Park, California Coastal National Monument, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and the recently designated Harris Point California Marine Protected Area.
“This is an exciting and rare finding, certainly a historic one,” says Josh Adams, who captured the photos with colleague Jonathan Felis. “The murres appear to have reestablished their former southern range.”
Common murres are most abundant off central through northern California with tens to hundreds of thousands of birds nesting at the Farallon Islands, off Trinidad Head and Castle Rock National Wildlife Refuge.
But prior to 1912, murres also nested on Prince Island — a small islet off San Miguel Island in Channel Islands National Park. This colony became extinct a century ago, likely a result of human disturbance and egg harvesting.
This June and July, however, Adams and Felis spotted a new colony during their research trips to this remote windswept island. The birds were perched on precarious, 100-feet-high sea cliffs, so Adams and Felis had to sail out to Prince Island and use telephoto lenses to document proof of the new colony.
Using the photos, they counted some 125 birds, of which about 79 to 89 birds may be incubating eggs. Concrete evidence of breeding was established in a photo taken on July 12th, which revealed a single hatched eggshell. Several adults within the colony also appeared to be holding fish in their beak, and one adult appeared to be feeding a fish to a new hatchling.
Inset of the previous photo showings evidence of nesting and chick-feeding. The left red circle highlights an adult murre holding a fish in its bill. The center circle highlights a murre egg fragment, with the yellowish interior of the eggshell visible. The right circle highlights another adult murre also holding a fish, possibly attempting to feed the prey to a chick. Image Credit: USGS.
Parks biologist Laurie Harvey and Mike Parker later observed several well developed chicks on July 28, 2011.
Murres use their wings to propel themselves underwater. For the first two weeks of their life, murre chicks are fed at the colony by their parents, which use their wings to propel themselves underwater and dive for anchovies, sardines and juvenile rockfishes. At about two weeks of age, murre chicks waddle off the cliff edges to the surf below. They join their fathers, which raise the chicks at sea until they are capable of diving and feeding on their own.
“The conditions in the Santa Barbara Channel have been exceptionally productive with prey species during the last decade,” says Adams, who has worked on Prince Island since 1999. “Although there are many factors that affect population redistribution and recovery, no doubt the murres at Prince Island are benefiting from present ocean conditions.”
Adams says the return of the murre brings the number of local seabird species to 13, making Prince Island one of the most biodiverse and important nesting habitats along the entire West Coast. “Working together with our partners, we hope to continue to evaluate natural colony formation and expansion of murres at Prince Island in years to come.”
-- Ben Young Landis
The distribution map of common murres in Birds of North America. If the new murre colony persists, textbooks and field guides will have to redraw their distribution maps. Image courtesy of Cornell University.