MIKE PARKER is a magician. He needs no smoke, but he does use mirrors
-- mirrors, decoys, and loudspeakers. His audience is a seabird called
the common murre, and his trick is to lure the birds back to a breeding
site they abandoned after an oil spill more than a decade ago.
Murres breed in loud, crowded colonies on narrow
cliff ledges. Parker and his colleagues from the San Francisco Bay
National Wildlife Refuge want to convince the birds that the abandoned
site, Devil's Slide Rock, is the hot, hip place to breed. The decoys,
mirrors, and amplified recordings of murre calls are supposed to assure
murres still looking for a place to settle down that everyone is doing
It isn't easy. Devil's Slide Rock island juts 70
feet out of the Pacific Ocean. Waves crash at its base; its sides
are steep and ocean-sprayed, and the top -- where the team of biologists
arranges the wood and plastic mock murres in their best approximation
of a thriving colony -- is slick and smelly from years of accumulated
"They said it couldn't be done," says Harry Carter,
a murre man who collaborates on the restoration project. When other
seabird biologists heard about the proposed plan four years ago, "they
said it was too dangerous. They said it would be impossible to work
on that rock."
it proved to be almost impossible. El Nino storms battered the rock
all winter while the biologists paced, impatient to populate the decoy
colony before the murre breeding season starts. "We've been on call
for months," says Dave Nothhelfer, celebrating his first anniversary
of working on the project. His boots are shredded and his pants are
duct-taped together at the ripped knees. "They just don't make gear
tough enough for field work," he says.
Just after dawn, on the first day of spring, the
sea is calm enough to boat out to Devil's Slide Rock. Onboard the
40-foot fishing boat "Queen of Hearts", the Team Murre biologists,
grinning in excited anticipation, don bright orange survival jackets.
Everyone on the team has fallen into the ocean
at least once, except for Emilie Craig, who has worked on the project
for just three weeks. She smiles a bit uneasily.
Two weeks ago, during the first expedition of the
season, refuge biologist Jen Boyce slipped in up to her waist when
she leapt onto the island. It rained that day, "and it was like being
in a sea of guano," Boyce says. "My mom asks me why I'm doing this,"
she says, her eyes flashing in anticipation of attacking the rock
The boat's route from Half Moon Bay harbor north
to Devil's Slide Rock veers around an infamous surf spot called "Mavericks,"
where 10-20 foot waves swell up routinely, and 30-foot waves sometimes
break. Several late surfers, some of them seasoned veterans, caught
their last waves at Mavericks. It's "extreme," as the surfers say.
Reviving the murre colony on Devil's Slide Rock
may be the Mavericks of field biology.
with humans, location is everything in avian real estate, and the
murres couldn't pick a more beautiful spot to raise a family. The
boat ride offers an even more dramatic view of the coastline 25 miles
south of San Francisco than the drive along Highway 1. You may not
have visited in person, but you've driven this highway during commercial
breaks in your favorite t.v. show. Car companies exploit the crashing
surf, rugged rock islands and cliffs, and sweeping ocean views to
imbue their newest sedans and convertibles with a sense of adventure.
The power of nature is palpable here, even on land.
Devil's Slide has slid again. The steep hillside (practically a cliffside)
above the highway cuts off traffic every few years, and workers are
once more trucking away the season's debris. Below the highway is
the scar of a railroad track that connected Half Moon Bay to San Francisco
until its foundation slid into the ocean in 1925. Carter, who has
studied seabirds all along the west coast, thinks the highway will
follow the railroad in 10 or 20 years.
Once the Queen of Hearts (so dubbed before Diana's
death) nears Devil's Slide Rock, the biologists jump ship into a rubber
Zodiac raft. Propelled by an outboard motor, the 14-foot Zodiac is
maneuverable enough and sufficiently shallow-drafted to butt up against
the rock island. The scientists load the raft with bags of decoys,
cargo nets, ropes, and food and water for the long day atop the rock.
a small swell, Carter surfs the Zodiac straight at the towering cliff
face of Devil's Slide Rock. The biologists' harrowing first step from
the Zodiac onto the island is a narrow ledge lined with gooseneck
barnacles and California mussels. On each approach, one crew member
must leap from the Zodiac, as it rides the cresting wave, onto the
ledge and cling to the rock as the waves break over their boots. They
adjust their helmets, harness themselves into rock climbing ropes
and ascend the slick sides to finish constructing this year's colony.
The adult murre decoys, 350 of them, stand at attention
atop the island. They do not move, but it sounds as though they are
calling -- and loudly. The piped in murre music carries across the
cove. Parker tape recorded a murre colony on the Farallone Islands,
and now loudspeakers blare the chorus perpetually. Solar panels fuel
marine rechargeable batteries to keep up the din. Murres produce squawky,
croaky calls. When they're really excited, they sound like they're
playing the kazoo.
In between the solar panels and decoys, 10 mirrors
are propped up so that arriving, live murres will see their reflected
movements. Otherwise, the colony could look a bit lifeless. Boat captain
Bob Ingals cocks his head and puts on a puzzled face to imitate an
incoming murre greeting a decoy. "Dude! You sure don't talk much,
do ya?" The bearded, heavy captain looks a bit like a jolly Ernest
Today the biologists are adding wooden murre eggs
and 8 inch tall chick decoys to the colony. The decoys must be removed
each summer to scrape off all the guano. The black and white chicks
are lined with felt, so they have that just-born baby bird look. "We
have to re-fuzz them every year," says Boyce. The scientists have
to remove the whitened decoys at the end of the season to scrape off
the guano. They then replace them, freshly scrubbed, before the next
breeding season begins. After today, the staged murre colony will
conditions in a real, thriving murre colony would send a claustrophobe
into fits. Hundreds of birds crowd onto a cliff face. The foot-and-a-half
tall birds, with black backs, black heads and white bellies (they
look a lot like penguins, but don't tell an ornithologist that), greet
their life-long mates each spring when they return to "their" nesting
spot to court and breed. The male throws his head back, pointing his
bill up in the air. Both sexes bow at each other, stroke each other's
bills and preen each other. They build no nests, but unceremoniously
lay their eggs wherever there is a bare patch of ledge. Birds pile
on top of each other as they incubate the eggs.
These crowded conditions would seem to pose certain
problems for the birds. How do Ma and Pa Murre recognize their egg
among the hundreds of other eggs nearby? Once their chick hatches,
how do they keep track of it? Murre eggs are mottled with pigments
laid down as the egg passes through the mother's birth canal. The
eggshell pattern is distinctive, and both parents learn to recognize
the egg shortly after it is laid. Similarly, they learn to recognize
the chick once it hatches, so they can be sure to tend to their own
progeny. Even though each bird's kazoo-like call sounds the same to
human ears, murres distinguish each other's vocalizations. The chick
begins to call while it is still in the egg. Once it hatches, it calls
back and forth with the parents in a raucous but heart-felt family
After only three weeks on the colonial rock, the
half-grown chick flaps down into the ocean and learns to feed. The
father shepherds the chick around for another one to two months. The
father and child call back and forth across the waves, maintaining
contact with each other through their squawks. Only in the common
murre, as far as bird biologists know, do exclusively fathers teach
and guard the chick after it leaves the nest.
murre is the latest in a string of clients that National Audubon Society
biologist Steve Kress (and realtor to the winged) has helped find
new homes. He invented the decoy-loudspeaker-mirror method in the
1970s, and he consults on the murre restoration effort. He knew that
hunters, exploiting birds' instinct to seek safety in numbers, set
out decoys so that their game would land in a convenient lake. Kress's
ruse serves a more animal-friendly purpose than hunting. "Instead
of luring them into guns, we are luring them into a safe place to
nest," Kress said.
Wildlife restoration is all about history -- which
animals used to live here, what killed them or drove them away, and
how present conditions can mimic historical ones in order to bring
the animals back. Kress's original project, enticing puffins and terns
to return to islands off the coast of Maine, is rooted in the turn-of-the-century
fashion industry and the birth of America's wildlife conservation
It started with ladies' hats. Egrets, herons and
terns, who flaunt bright, billowy breeding plumage during the season
of love, were hunted almost to extinction so that their feathers (fetching
$32 an ounce) could grace high-class ladies' hats. Horrified ornithologists
and nature lovers fought -- and won -- the nation's first conservation
battle. The United States outlawed plume hunting, allowing the remaining
herons, egrets and terns to shake their feathers at their beloveds
in peace. The battle gave birth to the country's first wildlife conservation
organization, the National Audubon Society, founded in 1905 and named
after ornithologist and painter John James Audubon (1785-1851), who
killed birds for scientific or artistic purposes only.
Change can come slowly within wildlife conservation
movements. Seventy years after plume hunting was outlawed, the National
Audubon Society shifted its efforts from protecting plumed birds to
bringing them back to places where they had been wiped out. Kress's
1978 mission was to lure arctic and common terns to rocky islands
off of the Maine coast. He built decoys, and the birds came. Loudspeakers
and mirrors made the site look and sound like a teeming colony. His
trick has now been adopted by biologists in Hawaii, Japan, and --
to return to the common murre -- in California.
deadliest enemy isn't plume hunters, but oil. Devil's Slide Rock had
hosted a thriving colony of common murres until 1986, when an Apex
Oil Company barge spilled 25,000 gallons of oil, coating beaches from
Monterey to Pt. Reyes. In one of California's worst spills on record,
at least 6,500 common murres were killed. Those who survived the spill
at Devil's Slide Rock abandoned the nesting site.
For 10 years after the Apex spill, no murres ventured
to Devil's Slide Rock. The birds are particular about where they nest,
and they have long memories. Back in 1908, for example, egg hunters
disturbed a breeding colony on nearby San Pedro Rock. No murres have
returned to breed there since.
Apex was charged under the Clean Water Act and the
National Marine Sanctions Act with destruction of national resources.
The oil company fought a bitter, five-year court battle but was ultimately
fined $6.5 million. A slice of that money now funds the murre restoration
project, overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"This is exactly where the money should be spent,"
says Carter, circling Devil's Slide Rock in the Zodiac. He had taken
census of several murre colonies, including the one on Devil's Slide
Rock, before the oil spill, so he was able to help the government
document the damage the spill caused. He also walked the area's beaches
after the spill, counting dead birds.
Translating settlement money into larger numbers
of common murres is a complex project. The immediate goal is to reestablish
a breeding colony where Apex oil had driven one away. At its peak,
Devil's Slide Rock hosted 2,900 murres. The larger goals are to help
the local murre population return to its pre-spill numbers and to
protect the species from future ecological disasters. The more breeding
colonies spread out along the coast, the better the chances that at
least some will escape the next oil spill. Biologists know better
than to keep all their eggs in one breeding colony.
are ... sensitive. The 20th century has been rough on them, and even
the 19th century ended badly. The murres' biggest, bustlingest breeding
colony is on the Farallone Islands, just north of San Francisco. As
many as six million murres nested there in the early 1800s. In the
late 1850s, however, the Farallone Egg Company started harvesting
murre eggs. The chicken population couldn't keep up with the burgeoning
human population of California, so the murre eggs were gathered to
meet the demand. Since the birds do not breed until they are four
to six years old, and since each pair produces just one egg per season,
egging quickly threatened the colony. The egg company battled over
land rights with the federal government, which claimed the Farallones
as lighthouse territory. Federal marshals hauled the eggers off the
island in 1896.
Left alone with the lighthouse keeper and a few
other human companions, the murres began to mate their way back to
a recovering population. Growing technological progress begat pollution,
however, when oil tankers started plying the coastal waters between
southern California and San Francisco Bay. The ships regularly flushed
their tanks at sea, trailing miles-long oil slicks where murres bobbed
in the waves.
Marine birds unlucky enough to be coated with oil
meet with a shop-of-horrors variety of gruesome ends. Birds that inhale
or swallow toxins from freshly spilled oil suffer pneumonia and kidney
and liver damage. Oil on an eggshell poisons the developing embryo
inside. Floating oil coats birds' feathers, ruining their insulating
effects and weighing the birds down. The birds die from drowning,
hypothermia and exhaustion.
In the 1920s, after documenting oil's threat to
marine birds, environmental groups, including the Audubon Society,
and the U.S. Biological Survey worked with oil companies to build
on-shore tanks to store waste oil. Since then, ever-stricter environmental
laws have protected marine life from most intentional oil pollution.
Nevertheless, accidental spills threaten wildlife each year.
Gill nets, the murre's latest foe, snag and drown
murres and other diving birds. The wide nets, dragged behind boats,
gained popularity in the 1970s, but federal, state and regional restrictions
now force gill net fishers far off shore. The past decade has been
relatively peaceful for the murres, and their numbers have increased
to 50,000-100,000 at the Farallone breeding site.
The mock murre colony at Devil's Slide Rock, populated
by decoys and serenaded by stereo equipment, mimics a real colony
so well that several live, randy murres have decided to join the crowd.
A few murres settled down at the colony during the project's first
year, and some laid eggs. Last year, the third year of the repopulation
effort, nine breeding pairs made Devil's Slide Rock their home, and
30 other non-breeding birds hung out at the colony. Some of the murres,
who can live more than 20 years, were probably members of the original
colony wiped out by the oil spill. Seeing their native breeding grounds
once again teeming with life, they may have decided to give Devil's
Slide Rock one more chance. Last year's breeders will almost certainly
be back this year, since murres return loyally (even romantically)
to sites where they have bred successfully.
SETTING out the first flock of decoys two weeks ago, some of the biologists
returned to see what kind of response their faux-murres would elicit.
With muscles still aching from the previous day's climb, they trained
their binoculars on Devil's Slide Rock from the highway and counted
"This feels like a colony," says Carter, who has
studied murres for 20 years. Murres fly around the cove and swim near
Devil's Slide Rock. The birds are waiting for the biologists to leave
so they can have a little privacy. As the biologists hover over their
wooden chicks and eggs, a California gray whale surfaces 30 feet from
the rubber boat. "Holy mackerel!" yells Carter, spinning the Zodiac
around for a better look.
San Pedro Rock, where murres last nested 90 years
ago, frames the other end of the cove. The murre biologists decided
that since the Devil's Slide Rock colony is attracting murres so successfully,
they should try to repopulate San Pedro Rock as well. Once the rock
climbers have nestled the last decoy chicks and eggs into place on
Devil's Slide Rock, Carter picks them up and ferries them across the
Boyce leaps into the Zodiac laughing. She says that
she still loves the work, even after three seasons of climbing around
on the guano-frosted rock. "Maybe after the fourth season I'll get
tired of it," she says over the growl of the outboard engine.
They haul more supplies in from the patiently watching
Queen of Hearts. Carter darts the Zodiac up to San Pedro Rock in between
crashing waves, and Nothhelfer heaves solar panels, decoys, and 50-pound
batteries up to Parker, balanced precariously on the rocks. After
all of the supplies and scientists have been delivered, they painstakingly
ascend San Pedro Rock and place decoys all around. They anchor the
mirrors and position the loudspeakers, preparing to cast another spell.
Murre populations have plummeted in many of their
historic nesting areas, but the birds are wide-ranging. In the Pacific
Ocean, they breed from Big Sur up to Alaska and along the Asian coast
down to Japan. In the Atlantic, they nest from Maine up through Canada
and down through Scandinavia, Britain, France and Portugal. Throughout
the range, oil pollution and gill netting have killed the birds or
forced them from their historic breeding grounds. Devil's Slide Rock
and San Pedro Rock are close enough to an surviving colony, the one
in the Farallone Islands, that murres find the decoy colonies and
may be persuaded to homestead there.
Carter doesn't envy the biologists trying to help
the California condor recover. In 1987, when the last birds were captured
and introduced into a captive breeding program, only 27 condors were
alive. "That's why we want to do this now," says Carter of the murre
restoration project. "We want to bring them back before it's too late,
while we can still make a difference."