Oregonian on citizen surveyors

Volunteers rise early for a chance to see and hear endangered seabird

By Elizabeth Case, The Oregonian
About five minutes before the sun rises along the central Oregon coast, the robin begins to sing. As the forest wakes up, a morning chorus follows, and mixed in are the kerr kerr kerrs of the marbled murrelet, for those who are lucky and listening.
Early Thursday morning, about 40 people listened, and all were lucky. On an educational trip hosted by the Audubon Society, experienced bird watchers, representatives from various state and national government agencies and curious citizens rose before dawn to hear and see the marbled murrelet, a threatened seabird.
Paul Engelmeyer, who manages Ten Mile Creek, a National Audubon Society sanctuary, organized the event with the help of Kim Nelson, a senior faculty research assistant at Oregon State University.
On Wednesday night, 50 participants learned to identify the murrelets by sight and sound. Thursday, starting at 4:44 a.m., campers zipped open their tents and a few watchers drove in from Yachats. Engelmeyer, Nelson and other volunteer surveyors lead birdwatching at four locations: Cape Perpetua, Ten Mile Creek, Glen Creek and Big Creek.
Engelmeyer’s group waited just four minutes before hearing the first calls.
“They just slowly came alive with the sounds of the forest,” he said.
These murrelets fly between 40 and 60 miles an hour, often hundreds or a thousand feet in the air. Engelmeyer said many onlookers describe them as flying cigars, or otherwise, like potatoes.
Nelson accompanied 25 bird watchers, and said she recorded their first call just after 5 a.m.
“Once we heard the first bird, that got everybody up,” she said. “Some of them caught on right away and were pointing birds that were flying over.”
Marbled murrelets are listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. There are an estimated 20,000 remaining in the lower 48 states, with most along the west coast in Oregon, Washington and California. On the coast of the Siuslaw National Forest, the Audubon society designated 80,000 acres of old-growth forest and about 20,000 acres of marine habitat as Important Bird Areas.
Despite conservation efforts, the seabird’s population has declined steadily, about four percent each year. Marbled murrelets are threatened by logging and the influx of crows, ravens and jays. They make their nests high up in old-growth forests and depend on the ocean for food, diving up to 200 feet for herring and other forage fish.
“They are connected to the health of the ocean, as well as to the quality of our forests,” Engelmeyer said.
This marked the eighth year of this educational survey, which is hosted every July. Nelson hopes next year it might include trips to national forests where marbled murrelet surveys have never been conducted.
–Elizabeth Case
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