Student Journal: summer dispatches from the field Offshore California: last stand of the endangered marbled murrelet
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California coast

Extraordinary measures, fishing for murrelets with a salmon net in the dark of night, a bad breeding year, and no waiting for the molt

AÑO NUEVO, CALIFORNIA - Wildlife biology field work comes in a variety of different shapes and sizes. Most of the projects with which I have been involved or observed have employed field techniques that involve a considerable amount of excitement. Many wildlife taxa have evolved behavioral and physical attributes such as flight, the ability to burrow, or the ability to survive in climates not hospitable to humans that can make studying them quite challenging. Researchers therefore are often forced to go to extraordinary lengths to observe, capture, or sample their study species.


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Zach Peery has agreed to answer your questions, time permitting. Email Zach.

Murrelets are no exception. They only fly around over land when it is dark or nearly dark, they fly very fast (30 mph), and they don't vocalize when they land. At-sea they are usually found close to shore, near the surf and are not very approachable during the day. That means that in order to catch them, we are forced to try to catch them on the water at night. Obviously doing so can be pretty tough. Nevertheless, catching murrelets is fun. Actually, it is a lot of fun.

  Zodiac at sea
Zach Peery and colleagues working offshore in the dark of night in the Zodiac

Catching murrelets takes a boat - in our case, a Zodiac - and a three person crew. The crew consists of one driver, one person holding a spotlight, and one person holding a large salmon net at the ready. Once we launch off the beach, then we cruise along parallel to the coast approximately 400 yards from shore using the spotlight to locate birds. When someone spots a group of birds, the person who located them yells "Bird!" and the "netter" hangs over the bow trying literally to scoop the birds out of the water as the driver inches closer. Believe it or not, sometimes it actually works. Unfortunately, when we went out in Año Nuevo Bay last week, we only caught one bird. It wasn't because we missed a lot of birds, there simply weren't many around. It appears to be a bad breeding year, and many birds simply may not be hanging out adjacent to their onshore nesting habitat.

We generally have pretty good success though. On a good night we have caught up to 12 birds and have caught approximately 260 overall since 1997. The goal this year is to catch 75 more, and we have caught 17 up to this point. We expect to have better success in the fall when birds tend to congregate in Año Nuevo and when they molt their flight feathers and can no longer fly ...

— Zach Peery


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