Birds of Chignik: Marbled Murrelet – Seabird of Moss Nests and Old-Growth Forests

Chignik Marbled Murrelet

Although rarely present in great numbers, Marbled and Kittzlet’s Murrelets can often be observed in the estuarial waters of Chignik Lagoon and along the rocky coast of Chignik Bay. (Chignik Bay, July 28, 2020)

Before I began this project, it never occurred to me that forest habitat might be critical to a seabird. Yet such is the case with the Marbled Murrelet. Although Russian explorers first identified this species in 1789, it’s nesting habits remained a mystery until 1974. Hoyt Foster, a tree-trimmer working high up on a Douglas Fir in California’s Big Basin Redwoods State Park noticed a ball of fluffy down in a mossy tree branch. He carefully wrapped the bird and took it to a biologist who identified it as a Marbled Murrelet chick.* Thus, a great mystery in avian biology was solved, and yet another very good reason was added to the growing list of reasons to preserve the remaining remnants of the West Coast’s old growth forests. Of particular importance to murrelets are those coastal forests growing within about 45 miles of rocky coastlines from northern California through southeastern Alaska.

Marbled Murrelet, Kenai Fjords, Alaska. The light-colored bill makes me think this is a recently-fledged specimen. Fully grown, this species measures just under 10 inches on average – small as seabirds go. (July 22, 2012)

In addition to moss covered tree branches, a smaller number of Marbled Murrelets lay their solitary egg amidst rocks on talus slopes and among boulders. Either way, the nests are unadorned and inconspicuous. Both parents feed the chick, generally returning in twilight or darkness to avoid leading predators to the nest. Like other diving seabirds, their diet consists of fish and other small animals they might catch in nearshore ocean waters.

Cascade Mountains, Oregon: photo by Matt Betts, April 12, 2016

When you think of nesting Marbled Murrelets, think of ancient trees, early morning fog sifting through fir and redwood limbs covered in thick moss and a small, vulnerable seabird nestled into that moss, her body warming one tiny, downy being

Marbled Murrelet Range Map

Marbled Murrelet Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Marbled Murrelet Brachyramphus marmoratus
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Alcidae
Genus: Brachyramphus – from Ancient Greek brakhús = short + rhámphos = beak
Species: marmoratus – Latin: overlain with marble

Status in Marine Waters near Chignik: Not abundant but frequently encountered in Chignik Bay and Chignik Lagoon; Infrequently encountered on Chignik Lake, particularly in Clarks River Bay

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Uncommon on Chignik lake

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:Uncommon in all Seasons

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

*See: Frost, Garrison, A Seabird in the Big Trees, Audubon Audublog, June 3, 2013

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake