A Pilot’s Day in the Sky and A Murre’s Day on the Rock

Annie Schmidt

Common Murre and egg, Annie Schmidt

A Murre’s Day on the Rock

The murre stretched her head skyward and shook out her feathers as the sun’s rays began to warm her after the cool night. She then reached down and turned the speckled blue-green egg resting under her, using her bill to secure it near her warm belly. Neighbors began to wake around her and their closeness and movement gave the colony the look of rustling black fabric from the cliffs above.

In this post we share one story from two perspectives. The first is from the perspective of a Common Murre at her breeding colony in “A Murre’s Day on the Rock”. The second is from the perspective of a pilot enjoying the coast, whose actions unwittingly affect the murre in a very important way in “A Beautiful Day to Fly”. These stories were written by Mai Maheigan, Outreach Specialist, Seabird Protection Network. 

The murre stretched her head skyward and shook out her feathers as the sun’s rays began to warm her after the cool night. She then reached down and turned the speckled blue-green egg resting under her, using her bill to secure it near her warm belly. Neighbors began to wake around her and their closeness and movement gave the colony the look of rustling black fabric from the cliffs above.

Only a few days more and the egg that she and her mate had cared for so solicitously would break open and reveal the fluffy black and white chick waiting inside. Then it would be time to increase her foraging trips and stuff her chick full of anchovy and small squid in the weeks before it left the safety of the colony for the sea. At this point she would be long gone, out to sea with the other females, feeding and rebuilding her fat stores after all of the resources she put into growing her egg and keeping it safe on this rocky outpost.

She was not entirely relaxed, even now. She was a seabird, at home on the ocean, and uneasy with her feet on hard ground rather than in the soft fluid world. There were too many unfamiliar and frightening sights and sounds here on land. And their intrusion often left her restless and on edge, vulnerable. Just as her heart was quickening to the pull of the sea she felt a small tremor from the big blue-green egg at her feet. That is why she was here on this hard rock. Only a few weeks more before she again felt the wind of the open ocean and could fly, float, and dive as much as she liked, and eat to refill her perpetually hungry belly. She stretched her wings again and began to preen, checking that each of her feathers was in good shape and lay smoothly against the others. Just then, she heard the call of her mate, and saw him coming in to land in the mass of birds, nearly on top of one, then settle in to make his way over to her. They spent a few short moments getting reacquainted, preening one another’s head feathers. Then she carefully inched her way off the precious egg, to let him cradle it and take over the job of keeping their yet-to-hatch chick safe and warm.

Point Blue Conservation Science

Common Murre colony, Point Blue Conservation Science

Suddenly a loud noise startled her and every bird’s eyes turned in fright to the sea as an enormous shape sped towards the rock. It was so terrifying that she immediately forgot everything except the fear that had overcome her. Along with many of her neighbors, she spread her wings and flew off the rock to the safety of the sea, away from the loud form fast approaching the rock. A few minutes later she landed on the familiar water and caught her breath, her heart still pumping from adrenaline and fear. She shook out her feathers and preened a few back into place. Floating quietly on the sea she was able to gather her senses, and feel the familiar water beneath her slowly paddling feet. She caught the silvery glimpse of an anchovy and dove to pursue it under the surface; she caught and ate the first one then two more in quick succession. Her hunger now eased, she returned to the surface to float and rest. Her thoughts then returned to the rock and to her egg. Her egg! Was it safe?

The murre flapped to take off from the water and return to the rock. Her eyes scanned for that familiar spot, where she and her mate had raised chicks for the past decade. Coming closer she saw him standing there, looking down at his feet. She landed more easily in the open space than earlier; many of her neighbors had been frightened off the rock too and had not yet returned. She scuttled over to her mate, ready to take care of their egg. But, when she brushed against him he did not move. He just looked down at his feet where the egg should have been. She looked under, then around him and even pushed him aside as the realization came slowly and like a massive weight. Her egg! It was gone! As she looked around, she realized that many eggs were missing. Nearby she saw hungry gulls eating still more of the blue-green eggs lying unprotected on the rock…

A Beautiful Day to Fly

Seeing Pillar Point Harbor from Above by M. Maheigan

Pillar Point Harbor, M. Maheigan

The pilot ran through her checklist, making sure that all of the helicopter’s systems were working correctly and that nothing had been missed in her pre-flight check. She could hear the passengers talking excitedly in her headphones, despite her request for silence during the pre-flight routine. Her three passengers, a family from Maryland, were understandably excited. It was their first time in a helicopter. They were visiting the Bay Area to see the son’s college. The gangly young man had seemed a bit nervous during the earlier safety briefing. The pilot announced, “Ok, we’ll be taking off now, so get ready for some fantastic views!”

As she took to the air, the pilot felt the little rush of adrenaline that always marked the start of a flight. She turned the helicopter to the coast and began to point out interesting sights to the family members, whose eyes were glued out the window, taking in the hills below, golden in the dry California summer. In just a few minutes they reached the coast and turned north. Pillar Point Harbor’s distinctive shape passed below them, only a few surfers in the water today. The helicopter hugged the coastline, as the pilot and passengers scanned the relatively calm sea for whales; this family was particularly interested in wildlife. Nothing in sight now, although the view from 700 feet was very clear. A line of birds headed away from the coastline passed below the helicopter. Continuing north, she saw fog begin to creep onto the Golden Gate Bridge. The pilot pointed out the iconic Point Bonita lighthouse, as the father snapped photos and asked her to circle so he could get another angle. The pilot obliged, then turned toward the bridge for the most dramatic part of the bay tour, passing over and then under the San Francisco icon. The pilot made a close pass over the famous Alcatraz island prison and into the Berkeley hills…another beautiful day of flying!

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