It’s not every day that a job comes along that allows one to sit along the coast and gaze out over the ocean watching seabirds, whales, dolphins, and pinnipeds go about their day. I got that exact opportunity with the Common Murre Restoration Project in 2009. During my time on the murre project, I worked at all three field sites along the central California coast. Although the surveys and seabird monitoring methods were the same at each place, every site had its own unique ambiance, views, and challenges.
Point Reyes was my first field site. I was in awe of the rolling grassy hills dotted with cattle, the ruggedness of the headlands, the tranquility of the forests, and the boundless waves rushing toward the shore. The weather could change at an amazing speed, and it took some time to get used to the persistent fog and wind. My favorite days were the ones where I could see clear to the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, and the Farallon Islands.
The weather was not the only challenge: more than 300 stairs go down to the lighthouse. Hauling forty pounds of gear when walking down was the easy part, but coming back was an ordeal. I remember the first time I made it up the stairs without stopping. My legs felt like jelly. Luckily, there was a bench not too far away, so I hobbled over, dropped my equipment, and flung myself on the bench. I am sure people looked at me strangely, but I didn’t care because finally I had accomplished one of my field season goals.
Devil’s Slide was my next field site and it had its own unique atmosphere. This field site is much smaller than Point Reyes, but just as rugged and scenic. It felt faster paced than my days at Point Reyes. Some of the surveys were conducted right next to a busy highway and people liked to honk and yell as they drove by. In the beginning, it was startling, but I quickly became used to the noise and tuned it out. The monitoring focus at this site is Devil’s Slide Rock, an offshore sea stack about 300 yards from shore. It was much harder to monitor because of the distance from our observation spots, the present wind and fog, the almost constant aircraft traffic, and occasional boats.
Monitoring for seabird disturbance caused by aircraft and boats is an important part of the project. This was especially important at Devil’s Slide, which is just north of the Half Moon Bay Airport and Pillar Point Harbor. From the very first day in the field, I became attuned to listening for the sound of an approaching plane or helicopter and scanning the water for any boat that might get too close to the rock. Disturbance monitoring made the day more exciting because there was always an element of surprise and anticipation with what might or might not happen. On some days disturbance was so common that I couldn’t even get the other counting work done!
This was not the case while working on the Big Sur coast at the third monitoring site, called Castle-Hurricane. People come from all over the world to see this part of the coast because it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful stretches in California. The areas where I would sit and monitor the birds were also accessible to others. I would get inquisitive looks and I would hear, “What are you looking at…whales?”
More times than not, people would walk away disappointed when I said, “No, I’m monitoring seabirds nesting on the rocks.” I didn’t mind people asking me questions and most of the time they didn’t even know the birds were there until I pointed them out.
In the four years that I worked on the murre project I came to learn not only the murres’ general behavior, but also the more intimate secret behavior that one only gets to see when spending every day with the birds for an entire summer. Some people might say, “Oh there are just a bunch of birds on a rock,” but they are so much more than that. Murres are very neighborly and social creatures. On breeding colonies the birds are tucked in closely, almost shoulder to shoulder. Living is such tight quarters with ones’ neighbors means a constant struggle to get to and from their home sites. It is like being at a sold out, standing room only concert and having to fight your way to the front of the stage to where your partner is standing. There is a lot of pushing and shoving as well as some standing on top of each other just to get home. It only gets worse when the chicks hatch and the parents are constantly coming and going to feed their fast-growing offspring. Many times, I have seen parents coming in with a fish and the second they land, they have to start playing the keep-away-game to protect the fish from all the other hungry mouths on the rock. Most of the time they successfully make it to their home, but occasionally they lose the battle.
When it is time for the chick to leave home, its father is responsible for making sure the chick gets to the water and for teaching it how to survive at sea. Coercing the chick off the rock is quite entertaining. It is simply a game of follow the leader, even though the chick is sometimes reluctant to follow dad and would prefer to stay home and continue to be fed. Eventually, with enough convincing and an occasional push, the chick and father head out into the ocean blue. Mom, on the other hand, hangs out for a bit alone until she too returns to the ocean for the winter to replenish her greatly depleted energy stores.
Many people have told me that I was lucky to have a job where I could sit outside in nature and watch birds all day. I agree. I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work on this project. All the experiences and obstacles were well worth it. I have always been passionate about seabirds, but in those summers I gained a deep understanding of seabird behaviors and biology that will allow me to become a better biologist, and also to be an advocate to help protect seabirds and their ecosystem for the future.