Common Murre are abundant here; many can be seen carrying fish on a return flight to the Farallon Islands, where hungry babies eagerly wait for their next meal. The islands — uninhabited by humans except for a small group of scientists — are nesting grounds for thirteen species of seabirds and six species of marine mammals that breed or haul out on the islands each year.
According to U.S. Fish & Wildlife service, the Farallons host the largest seabird nesting colony south of Alaska with numbers greater than 350,000 in the summer, including nesting Common Murres, Tufted Puffins, Pigeon Guillemots, and Western Gulls.
Just 27 miles west of San Francisco, these rocky islands weren’t always an ideal habitat for seabirds. During the California Gold Rush, a lack of agricultural infrastructure led hungry prospectors and entrepreneurial foragers to the Farallons for eggs, which pushed the Common Murre to the brink of extinction.
Over the years, a combination of exploitation from hunting and foraging to military uses left the island in a state of disarray. Feral cats and nonnative rabbits introduced by previous inhabitants obliterated many seabirds. Oil spills and pollution also took a toll on the habitat, which was established as a national wildlife refuge in 1909 by Theodore Roosevelt. Since the late 1960s, partnerships between U.S. Fish & Wildlife, NOAA, and Point Blue Conservation Science have helped to restore and maintain the Farallons for wildlife and research.
We’re here on the second day of an Applied California Current Ecosystem Studies, or ACCESS, cruise. It is part of a long-term effort, now in its 15th year, to monitor and understand the oceanographic conditions, prey availability, and abundance and distribution of seabirds and whales in the region.
The data collected on these cruises, which take place three to five times per year, are used to help inform decision-making and research priorities in Northern and Central California National Marine Sanctuaries. ACCESS is a partnership between NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries and Point Blue Conservation Science.
Seabirds and marine mammals are drawn to the region by a process called upwelling. In the spring, strong winds move across the surface of the ocean circulating and drawing cold, nutrient-rich water from the deep ocean areas that lie below the edge of the Continental Shelf and Slope. This process is part of what makes these waters, according to NASA, “some of the most biologically productive in the world.”
When these nutrients reach the sunlight at the surface, the perfect environment is created for marine plant life — from phytoplankton to kelp forests. The plants, in turn, feed the wildlife.
Krill thrive in these nutrient-rich waters. “Its size is tiny, but its significance is colossal,” Mary Jane Schramm writes. “Krill – a shrimp-like crustacean – forms the basis of the marine food web for whales, seabirds, fish, squid, seals, and sharks throughout the world’s oceans.”
As we zigzag along the coast via predetermined transect lines, this productivity is evident in both the variety and quantity of life seen here.
The expert wildlife observers are armed with details to make each sighting even more exciting. When prompted, Dru Devlin, research associate for Greater Farallones Association, offers up a litany of fascinating details about the Common Murres, which nest on steep, rocky cliffs.
The female lays one large blue egg, which she sits on for the duration without nourishment. When the egg finally hatches, she takes off to replenish her strength for whatever lies ahead and the father steps in to take care of the baby chick. (In Far from Land: The Mysterious Life of Seabirds, Michael Brooke points out that seabirds generally only produce one to two eggs per year, which he adds is smart evolutionary strategy, because otherwise the ocean would be full of birds with nothing to eat!)
Murre chicks leave the nest, before they’ve fledged, meaning they haven’t grown flight feathers. When the time comes, the father and chick leap off the steep cliff and into the water below where the little one floats for up to two months, waiting for its flight feathers to come in.
Yesterday, we heard a cacophony of bird calls throughout the day; Devlin explained that we were hearing the father birds calling out to their chicks as they returned from fishing for food. Devlin concludes her explanation by asking me to imagine what it must be like to look for your baby in the midst of rough seas and large swells and I find myself, once again, awestruck by the tenacity of seabirds.
In a very short period of time, I’ve seen so much. As a city kid from Philadelphia, my encounters with animals outside of zoos were limited to squirrels and pigeons, so much of these sightings are pretty big firsts for me. While everyone was busy deploying equipment on a side deck after breakfast, I ducked around a corner for a quiet moment and found myself alone with a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins, playfully lingering alongside our vessel.
Observing these creatures is a rare treat made even better when accompanied by a team of biologists and wildlife experts to explain what I see and fill me with a sense of wonder for new favorites like the uncommon Common Murres.
Spotted Wednesday, July 4:
California Sea Lions
Jenny Woodman, Proteus founder and executive director, is a science writer and educator living in the Pacific Northwest. Follower her on Twitter @JennyWoodman.
This article was updated on July 5.
History of Farallon Islands by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Farallon National Wildlife Refuge by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
California Coastal Current by NASA Earth Observatory
Common Murre Identification by Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Tiny Krill: Giants in the Marine Food Chain by Mary Jane Schramm for NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries