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Common Murre associations with the Columbia River Plume and adjacent waters

Common Murre at Tomales Bay. --Photographer: Jonathan Felis
The murre (pronounced “mrr-rr-rrr,” in imitation of the bird’s vocalizations) is a football-sized seabird of the auk family (Alcidae) that resembles certain black-and-white, tuxedo-clad penguins. Like penguins, murres use their wings to “fly” deep underwater; unlike penguins—they also fly in the air. The majority of the offshore avian community between northern California and the Washington-British Columbia border includes high-density aggregations of the Common Murre (Uria aalge californica). Off Washington from 1979 through 1995, the breeding population of murres has declined from approximately 53,000 birds to <10,000 (Manuwal et al. 2001). Oregon supports the largest number of breeding murres (~426,000 in 1988; Manuwal et al. 2001). Off California, 15 northern California colonies support the majority (ca. 73%) of the state population (>256,000 breeding birds in 1989: Carter et al., unpublished data), and USGS scientists recently documented breeding colony re-occupation off southern California.

Resource managers currently lack spatial and temporal information on the at-sea movements and distribution of murres off northern California, Oregon, and Washington. Although aerial surveys provide broad-scale, snap-shot assessments of seasonal distributions for seabirds, they do not provide key information on their regional movements and prolonged use of critical habitats. Movement data provide more detailed insights into habitat use and may be essential for interpreting survey data to inform adaptive management plans that consider renewable energy development, marine spatial planning, and future climate change effects (Adams et al. 2012). USGS currently is augmenting aerial survey results with telemetry data to provide improved insights into movement patterns and “high-use” critical habitats among seabirds at sea.

Project Details

As a part of our ongoing USGS studies involving the Pacific Continental Shelf Environmental Assessment (PaCSEA) supported by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), we are following the movements of Common Murres captured and outfitted with small satellite transmitters off Washington in the vicinity of the Columbia River Plume. Together with our collaborators at NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center, Point Adams Field Station (Dr. Jen Zamon) and University of Washington (Elizabeth Phillips) we conducted night-time captures at sea using an inflatable skiff, spotlight, and dip-net. We transported captured murres to our mother vessel, the M/V Forerunner operated by the Clatsop Community College, Marine and Environmental Research and Training Station (MERTS) for satellite transmitter attachments and subsequent release approximately 3 miles off the Columbia River mouth. Foraging aggregations of murres are commonly observed near the mouth of the Columbia River. Densities here can often exceed 50 birds per square km, making them the one of the most conspicuous and abundant piscivourous seabird predators in the region. Aggregations often are observed feeding at the turbulent boundary between fresh river water and salty ocean water (the “plume front”). Young salmon migrating out of the Columbia River must successfully pass through this boundary to begin their ocean phase of life. To develop an understanding of how murres and young salmon interact in the plume environment, this project uses satellite tags and ship-based ocean surveys to gather information about shearwater habitat use, diet, and residency time in the Columbia River region.


1. Determine the movements and habitat affiliations among a sample of pre-breeding, adult murres outfitted with small satellite transmitters
2. Compare tracking data describing extended at-sea habitat use with ongoing and synoptic, low-elevation aerial surveys (i.e., regional seasonal snapshots of distribution)
3. Quantify how murres interact with oceanographic structures driven by winds, tides and Columbia River discharge


Adams, J., C. MacLeod, R.M. Suryan, K.D. Hyrenbach, J.T. Harvey. 2012. Summer-time use of west coast US National Marine Sanctuaries by migrating sooty shearwaters (Puffinus griseus). Biological Conservation doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2011.12.032.

Manuwal, D.A., and H.R. Carter. 2001. Natural history of the common murre (Uria aalge californica). Pages 1–32 in D. A. Manuwal, H.R. Carter, T.S. Zimmerman, and D.L. Orthmeyer, editors. Biology and conservation of the common murre in California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Volume 1: Natural history and population trends. U.S. Geological Survey, Biological Resources Division, Information and Technology Report USGS/BRD/ITR2000-0012, Washington, D.C.

USGS Collaborator
Johnathan Felis
(707) 310-2518
San Cruz Field Station
400 Natural Bridges Drive
Santa Cruz, CA 95060
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USGS Collaborator
John Takekawa
(707) 562-2000
San Francisco Bay Estuary Field Station
505 Azuar Drive
Vallejo, CA 94592
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USGS Contact For This Project
Josh Adams
(831) 460-7566
Santa Cruz Field Station
400 Natural Bridges Drive
Santa Cruz, Ca 95060
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