A Day with Common Murre Birds

Common Murre Colony

Imagine working on the 17th floor of an office building with no elevator, and the steps are outside. And, what if you had to go up and down several times in a day?

This is a daily reality for the bird biologists studying Common Murres at Point Reyes.

I met one of the seabird biologists (Shannon) about a week ago and secured permission to join her at the lighthouse someday to see learn more about their work. I was outside today (Sunday) when Shannon and her co-worker Emily arrived at the lighthouse parking area. So, I quickly gathered my camera gear and binoculars and followed them down to the lighthouse. It is 308 steps down to the lighthouse. That means it is 308 steps back up to the parking area. Going down was easy.

Emily walking up lighthouse stairs
Emily carrying her gear up all 308 steps, from the lighthouse platform to the parking lot area. The lighthouse is inside the white circular structure enclosed by plastic, during reconstruction.  Sony a9 + 100-400mm lens @140mm, ISO 1250, f/8, 1/2500s. ©Stanley Buman. All Rights Reserved.

Shannon and Emily are studying Common Murres this summer. The murres nest along coasts and islands, on ledges of cliffs, and on flat bare rock atop sea stacks. For its size, the Common Murre has the most densely packed nesting colony of any bird species. The nests may be so close together that incubating adults are actually touching other adults on both sides.

The biologists spend about 4 months monitoring nesting success rate. Previous studies that have been done indicate that the Murres return to the exact same spot on a rock to nest each year. Offspring do not disperse far from where they hatch. They begin nesting when they are about 4-5 years old and tend to nest within about a yard or two of where they hatched. So, the biologists monitor the same plot (or section) of rocks to look for population changes. A photo of the plot is taken and each bird is assigned a number.

There is a lot of waiting that takes place. The biologists wait until a bird stands up in order to determine if it has laid an egg, the egg has hatched, if a chick dies off, or if it fledges. This year as been a disappointing year for fledging birds. An early-season storm caused large swales that washed eggs off the rocks. A very hot period may have toasted some eggs. Plus, there is debate about a dwindling food supply; the fish.

Common Murre Colony
The Common Murres nest so close to one another that the adult birds may actually be touching. Determining if an adult has laid an egg or hatched a chick takes a lot of patience. Biologists have to wait for the bird, and sometimes the bird/s around it, to stand up to determine nesting success. Sony a9 + 100-400mm lens @560 mm, ISO 1250, f/8, 1/2500s. ©Stanley Buman. All Rights Reserved.

The seabird biologists monitor multiple sites in the park daily. Spotting scopes are used to study the nests. Setting up in a building next to the lighthouse allows them some protection from the elements. 

Emily and Shannon looking thru scopes for common murres
Emily and Shannon pack in their tripods, scopes, and other devices up and down the steps daily in order to monitor the Common Murre nesting colony.  Sony a7R III + 16-35mm lens @26 mm, ISO 800, f/11, 1/30s. ©Stanley Buman. All Rights Reserved.

I am constantly amazed at all of the research that is conducted within the park. The nesting Murres is just one example. I have also met two of the seasonal fisheries biologists, studying salmon movement. I look forward to learning about other research activities.