Featured Picture: Marbled murrelets are creatures of both forest and ocean. Photo by Oregon State University/Creative Commons.
Before the fires, if you were very quiet and very lucky, you might have stood in California’s Big Basin Redwoods State Park and listened to the high, piping calls of unseen birds in the canopy overhead. Cool fog would have misted your face and ferns might have rustled underfoot as you leaned against an ancient tree to look up. There! Above you, fluffy marbled murrelets, the size of baked potatoes, would have whizzed between the trunks as if in some Star Wars chase scene, rocketing at 60 miles an hour through the deep forest toward hidden nests high on mossy branches.
“For me, marbled murrelets have always embodied the dynamic connection between land and sea. I first encountered them as a kayak guide in Southeast Alaska, where the tiny birds would rise with a string of bubbles to the surface, then flap wildly to gain air, buzzing away like pudgy little helicopters.”
Big Basin was the place where a high-climbing branch pruner first discovered a downy, speckled marbled murrelet chick in 1974, 150 feet off the ground, and miles from the coast where these seabirds were often spotted diving for fish and drifting on the silky California swell. It was one of the very last North American birds to have its nesting behavior identified. Who would have guessed that the tiny marbled murrelet would fly inland to lay a single egg high off the ground, sometimes over a hundred miles from the coast—migrating back and forth on racecar-swift little wings between the forest and the sea? In the intervening years, ecologists devoted themselves to studying the habits and preferences of these extraordinary birds, learning that they exclusively nest in old growth forests—places with tall trees, strong branches, and hundreds of years of plush moss growth to serve as a soft roost for fragile eggs.
Since the 19th century, these little birds have lost huge swaths of their nesting habitat to logging along the West Coast, and their populations have plummeted as old growth forests become rarer and rarer. Big Basin Redwoods State Park, dense with ancient redwoods and deeply-furrowed Douglas-firs, contains nearly half of the remaining old growth forest in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains and has been a bastion of hope for murrelet populations.
Then in late August, a historic thunderstorm pummeled the Bay Area and surrounding regions with howling winds and thousands of dry lightning strikes. Hundreds of fires broke out across the state, several of them growing rapidly into some of the largest wildfires in California history. On Tuesday, August 18th, the fire known as the CZU Lightning Complex tore through Big Basin, demolishing park headquarters and blazing through the stands of redwoods, some of them nearly 2000 years old.
First reports were grim. The sky was orange with smoke; the ancient groves were black with char. Soon, though, scientists were able to confirm that many of the biggest, oldest trees would survive. Redwoods are especially good at re-sprouting branches from damaged trunks, and Douglas-firs have thick, fire-resistant bark, though they cannot re-sprout. Even so, many of the living crowns of the trees—the nesting platforms used by marbled murrelets—were incinerated in Big Basin. And in an email, Steven W. Singer, Consulting Biologist for the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council, suspected that the area “may have lost most of our remaining suitable Doug-firs,” a big blow to murrelet populations. Singer recalled the last major crown fire to occur in Big Basin, in 1904. In the 120 years since then, those redwoods that re-grew their crowns still have not developed branches that are big enough for murrelets to nest on. The area is still too dangerous to investigate after the recent fire—weakened trees continue to topple—and so Singer and the rest of us who worry about murrelets will simply have to wait to find out how much of the canopy may have survived the blaze.
“For families, for farmworkers, for forests, and also for fish, the fires along the West Coast will have long-lasting impacts that remain to be seen.”
Meanwhile, fueled by climate change and the lasting legacy of fire suppression practices, the rest of the West Coast of the U.S. continues to see record wildfires, many in temperate rainforests where endangered marbled murrelets nest in California, Oregon, and Washington. Hundreds of thousands of people have evacuated their homes, neighborhoods are burning to the ground, and smoke instead of fog is sifting among the stands of old trees. As murrelets face the loss of some of their last remaining nesting habitat, it is clear that the effect of wildfire extends to marine ecosystems as well as to our communities on land.
Recently, a letter from Colin Schultz, the News Editor for Hakai Magazine, reminded those of us who love the ocean that the damages of fire don’t stop at the shore, and don’t stop with vulnerable seabird populations. Whole marine ecosystems are at risk. Toxins from scorched homes settle in the sea. Bare, burned slopes soften in the rain and collapse in landslides. Charred debris “will suffocate fish, starve seagrass, and cause an explosion of algae that will suck the oxygen out of the water.” For families, for farmworkers, for forests, and also for fish, the fires along the West Coast will have long-lasting impacts that remain to be seen.
For me, marbled murrelets have always embodied the dynamic connection between land and sea. I first encountered them as a kayak guide in Southeast Alaska, where the tiny birds would rise with a string of bubbles to the surface, then flap wildly to gain air, buzzing away like pudgy little helicopters. I took a deep, hopeful breath every time I saw one: if marbled murrelets were around, it meant that somewhere—past the braided deltas where salmon shuffled in the shallows, past the tall sedge meadows where bears grazed in the gray rain—somewhere not too far away, there must still be old growth trees, mossy and ancient and abiding. The murrelets were an indicator species: where they were, there must also be very big trees, just out of sight.
Everything about these tiny birds feels improbable—their ability to fly underwater with their wings outspread, their stout little bodies somehow capable of liftoff (and high speed!), their ability to travel long miles away from the sea to their hidden nesting sites in the deep woods. Recently, their very survival has begun to feel implausible. Still though, in the face of improbability, action based on hope may be our strongest weapon. We can work to remember and reestablish abandoned indigenous practices of forest management, such as controlled burns. We can continue to fight to protect 30 percent of the ocean by 2030—important now more than ever as we continue to find deep ties between marine and terrestrial ecosystems. And we can vote: vote to empower decision makers that will take strong action to mediate the mounting threats from climate change on land and at sea, and vote to ensure a future for vulnerable animals like the marbled murrelet.
Someday—however improbably—perhaps each of us will have a chance to stand under the fluted columns of an ancient redwood rainforest. Someday—however improbably—we’ll listen for the whirring wingbeats of those little birds as they continue to stitch together land and sea.