‘Murre-ica

6.3.14 Bridgeland

Eagles are to America as Murres are to Yaquina Head.

Visitors come from all around the world to witness the natural and historical beauty of Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area. Oftentimes, I stand on the observation deck of the lighthouse with my scope and look for Common murre nests in off-shore rocks west of the headland. In my attempt to battle the winds, I am disguised by my exaggerated amount of layers, under which I am able to hide and simply overhear the conversations of passerby’s:

“Look, penguins!”

“Wow, there’s so many of them!”

“Oh, an Eagle! Oh…oh…no…the Eagle is going to eat the penguin!”

The Common murre colonies at  Yaquina Head are a spectacle in themselves. Standing 60,000 strong, these birds spend their lives out at sea, flying in to large rocks slightly west of the headland only to lay an egg and raise a chick. While they are, as their name suggests, incredibly common–they are the most abundant seabird in the Pacific Northwest–this bird’s highly charismatic nature makes them the subject of much admiration and attention in the park. Imagine a penguin that flops around like a very clumsy Happy Feet character, which can fly, and never stops squawking. In fact, the Common murre is the Northern Hemisphere’s version of a penguin; it’s in the same family and forages in the same layer of the ocean (a murre can dive well above 400 feet in its search for food!). Couple all this with it’s stubby wings and clumsy flight pattern and you have quite possibly the cutest seabird of all time.

However, all is not dandy in the lands of ‘Murre-ica’. A recent drama is unfolding on these rocks, causing the Murres and visitors alike to cringe under the auspice of change: the eagles have returned. Bald Eagles were once decimated from the area from DDT contamination. While this is sad for our national bird, the Murres rejoiced; this was a time of high abundance for their colonies. Conservation efforts slowly brought the bird back to fruition, up until the mid 1990’s when the Bald Eagle had finally returned. As part of its glorious comeback into the ecosystem came it’s hunger for the Murres. Meanwhile, the Murres, resolute in the calmness of their surroundings, evolved in a system with very few predators and unfortunately, were not ready for the impending reign of terror. The days of peace were over for the Murres.

And so visitors will watch in terror as the Eagle swipes in to grab itself a quick meal, flushing out the entire colony in the process. Watching the chaos ensue is almost like a scene out of a fantasy movie: the dragon beats its heavy wings against the wind, hovering over the crowds of shuddering humans below…for a moment, it pauses, like the calm before a storm, until suddenly–in one clean dive–it plunges to the ground, opening its mouth wide and scorching the earth clean. The screams of the villagers running for their lives echoes through the mountainside as the dragon flies away with its prized catch of the day. The Murres act just as dramatically, they squawk and fluster around until finally they dive off the rock, leaving eggs and chicks exposed to the elements. After the Eagle leaves, other birds, like gulls, crows, Turkey vultures, and sometimes Brown Pelicans will come in and finish the job of Murre annihilation.

This, of course, is simply nature in action. While a conclusion on the impact of the eagle’s disturbance is an ongoing project of Oregon State University’s Seabird Oceanography Lab, I don’t think of the Murre saga as such a terrible chain of events. In my personal opinion, the eagle is simply reintroducing itself back into a system that quickly forgot about its presence. As the eagle population continues to grow, it will be interesting to see how the behavior of nesting Murres change. Will the birds who hang tighter to the nests be the ones that survive to pass on their genes to the next generation? Or will those who flush, yet are lucky enough to have their nest left alone, be the successful candidates (not likely, but still a valid question)? Sometimes you see the Murres fight back, flinging their sharp beak at the impending threat–maybe they will build some kind of defense. Who knows…For now: tis’ the musings of a wannabe-scientist.

While I pass my survey time contemplating the changing dynamics of this ecological community, visitors watch these events unfold in terror. The Murres are too charismatic to not cheer on; many visitors even start to develop a playful dislike of the Bald Eagles and will take advantage of my obvious interest in the colony to comment how the Eagles are ravaging the poor seabirds.

Every two weeks I write a newsletter on the status of the Murre colonies and the activity of the Seabird Oceanography Lab. While it’s very scientific and direct, there is a sizable public following, distant Murre lovers rooting for ‘Murre-ica. Lately, I report nothing but bad news: the Murre colony has been abandoned, it’s an unsuccessful breeding year, there’s only a few chicks…the tragedies go on and on. Its fun to see the public reaction to the trials of Yaquina Head’s nesting birds–it’s a testament to the power of birds to bring people together in interest of science.

May Mother Nature bless ‘Murre-ica!

Bird on,
Lu

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