We were walking to the sound of the falling notes of a creek, and the percussion of crackling twigs and moss. The usual maritime breeze was not as strong this far into the forest, so the air was earthy and bold. Whatever little light there was in the sky at 4 am fell into the embrace of the thick canopy. We could only see the few steps in front of us that the headlamps illuminated, but our chatter helped us navigate the path. We were heading up Gwynn Creek in a patch of old growth forest in the Siuslaw National Forest to a designated area where the canopy would let us peek out and see. We’d been hiking for 20 minutes, and then the lead came to a stop. We all followed like the railcars of a train equidistant from each other. We stood there in silence. And we listened for the incongruous call of the Marbled Murrelet through the trees.
The evening before we had set out to survey for these charming little seabirds, we congregated at the Yachats Commons where an OSU researcher and Audubon of Portland gave a room of 20 or so people an introduction to the citizen science program that we would now be a part of. The area of Siuslaw forest around Yachats and Cape Perpetua is of quite importance to researchers and conservationist alike. The site has been deemed an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) of global importance by BirdLife International for its unique characteristics, one of those being that it is home to the majority of the Marbled Murrelets on the Oregon Coast. We were in luck to have some of the original researchers doing work on Marbled Murrelets on the Oregon Coast with us on this survey, Kim Nelson and her group were the first to find Marbled Murrelet nests in Oregon in the 90’s. The first nest ever discovered in California in the 70’s/80’s shows how cryptic these small birds truly are. The room was feeling determined after the presentation, and so was I.
It was as if the the forest was awakening slowly that morning. We were not standing there for long before we saw the first glows of sunlight breaking through the trees, I first herd the harmonic trill of a distant Varied Thrush, then another, and the Swainson’s Thrush followed with it’s watery song. Before I knew it, the forest was ringing with the variety of sounds that you are accustomed to hearing, but then we heard it. The distinctive call of the Marbled Murrelet, so easy to pick out because it’s so different from the rest, it doesn’t really belong. A loud “keer”, shouted repeatedly, sometimes the groan similar to an infant child. We heard one, and soon after a pair of overlapping calls. By the end of our survey we had 45 encounters and actually saw 8 in flight. It was surreal experience. I had seen Marbled Murrelets out at sea and even from shore, but never in the forest. You would never suspect a seabird in the forest. Our hike out was filled with stories of what we had seen and heard and questions about what others had witnessed. The conversation continued at a local coffee shop, it was incredible to be part of this group, blessed to have heard the cry of the Marbled Murrelet in forest.