Summer 1998

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M A G I C,   M I R R O R S   A N D   M U R R E S

High-tech decoys lure seabirds back to an abandoned nesting site.

By Laura Helmuth

BIOLOGIST 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 here.
      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 guano.
      "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."

THIS YEAR, 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 again.
      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.

JUST AS 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.

CATCHING 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 Hemingway.
     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 be complete.

BREEDING 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 bonding ritual.
     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.

THE COMMON 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 movement.
     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.

THE MURRE'S 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.

MURRES 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.

AFTER 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 30 murres.
     "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 cove.
     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."