Conservationists Rally to Protect a Threatened Seabird Nesting in California

 A juvenile marbled murrelet out on the water (Photo by USFWS CC BY 2.0)


Californian State Park officials are proposing recreational developments in Big Basin Redwoods State Park that threaten the marbled murrelet, a federally endangered seabird. Murrelets are among the only seabirds that nest in trees, seeking refuge in the dense, moss-cloaked branches of old-growth redwoods. Big Basin’s redwoods harbor the largest population of the central coast marbled murrelet, which is genetically distinct from its cousins up north—and therefore vital to protect.

The problem is an influx of corvids, like ravens and Steller’s jays, in the murrelet’s nesting areas. The birds are attracted by the trash and food scraps park visitors leave behind. When the tidbits run out, the corvids turn their appetites to marbled murrelet nests, and feast on their chicks—a loss that this species cannot afford.

Now, this problem is set to get worse. In its 2012 General Plan and draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the Park outlined a strategy for building new camps and expanding visitor access in key murrelet nesting areas. If this comes to pass, “Jays and ravens will reproduce, more of them will be there, and they will seek out and eat the [murrelet] chicks,” says Anna Weinstein, seabird conservation manager at Audubon California. The marbled murrelet population—sitting at only 450 birds currently—has declined by more than 30 percent in the last decade because of this corvid impact, experts believe.

Marbled murrelet sitting on nest in Redwood National and State Parks. Photo: NPS

Audubon and other conservation groups recently submitted comments on the Parks Department’s draft EIR in April, calling for Parks to reconsider their preferred alternatives in favor of options that would be less impactful on the birds. What’s given their cause extra force is an influential letter by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that states, firmly, that the Parks Department will be in violation of the Endangered Species Act because the proposed development so tangibly puts at risk the threatened birds.

The key concern is the Parks Department’s preferred decision to build new overnight cabins in an area called Sky Meadow, and their reluctance to consider an alternative that involves downscaling or relocating existing campgrounds and picnic areas in parts of the park crucial for nesting murrelets. Audubon’s commentary on the listed options and alternatives in the EIR says, “The Preferred Alternative includes up to ten new overnight cabins in the Sky Meadows area, and does not consider closing or relocating cabins at Blooms Creek, Sempervirens, or Jay Camp, located in the most important murrelet nesting areas.”

Furthermore, says Weinstein, the authorities are open about their plans to increase visitation by building trails and widening roads in parts of the park where murrelets nest. These efforts will hinder the bird’s recovery, since they’ll just attract more people, who will in turn draw in corvids that will prey on newborn chicks.

Weinstein says that the answer doesn’t necessarily lie in improving the way the park deals with trash, as would seem intuitive: “Very aggressive trash control programs aren’t leading to the reduction of corvids in those areas,” she says. While it’s not clear why this is the case—perhaps it proves that trash is harder to manage than we think—it does suggest that the safest solution is to get the campgrounds out of murrelet nesting areas.

However, Weinstein is clear about the fact that conservationists are not trying to discourage people from visiting the park. Rather, the aim is to move visitors into other parts. At 18,000 acres, the park is big enough to accommodate people in places that won’t cause disruption to the birds, which occupy roughly 8000 acres of the park.

Audubon California hopes that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s bold letter will raise the profile of this issue, and push the Parks Department to reconsider the alternatives they have picked. Conservation groups are also hopeful that officials will draw up a suitable management plan for the recovery of the marbled murrelet in the park—something that doesn’t currently exist.

Weinstein gives a nod to the Sempervirens Fund, a group that was instrumental in initiating the protection of old-growth red woods from loggers, and by implication, for protecting the marbled murrelets that have taken refuge in those rescued trees. If campgrounds and picnic areas expand below those vital canopies, years of conservation work like this could be undone.

The marbled murrelet is such a successfully secretive bird, that it wasn’t until the 1970s when an arborist spotted one high up in the redwood canopy that we first learned where the birds kept their nests. “It was a mystery for 180 years,” Weinstein says. It would be a shame if this bird once again became so obscure.


Here’s a link to Audubon California’s action alert about the marbled murrelet.

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