Saturday, July 6, 2013

Oh-Dark Stupid

Saturday July 6 2013

In the darkness before dawn, the forest wakes in layers. Aside from the occasional hoot of a great horned owl or barred owl and the creaking and cracking from something… large… cruising through the brush, there is a bank of silence between the night creatures and the day creatures.

The robins and Swainson's thrushes wake first, the chirping and the spiraling twitters reaching over the hills and spinning out above the canopy. When the winter wrens start up, they jump right in, all feet and feathers first, enthusiastically, a non-stop loud chatter that drowns out everything else within earshot. Others follow in time as dawn creeps up, slowly painting the blackness discernible shades of green: varied thrushes, chickadees, and a myriad of other LBJ's (Little Brown Jobs) I don't know.

This time of darkness, this Oh-Dark Stupid, is a no-man's land-time. It's way too late to still be awake and way too early to be up.

But I'm out here, listening to the waking forest.

To get here, one dark morning I follow fresh bear tracks from the previous day; another morning I tunnel through close and claustrophobic brush; another I wade through a stream and slip and slide up the slick bank. Devil's clubs bite me when I grab wildly for something for balance. Blackberry bushes grab my legs and try to trip me. I hope I'm avoiding poison ivy but the dark ground cover looks all the same in my narrow headlamp beam piercing a tiny hole in the blackness. Moss-covered fallen trees are a slippery bridge over black holes.

On all mornings, mosquitoes, also early risers, threaten to suck me dry of blood. On all mornings, despite being half asleep, my senses are on full-blown alert, particularly in close brush, and most particularly when I hear big cracks and snaps in the darkness.

Nesting marbled murrelet by Tom Hamer
All this to search for a cryptic, chunky robin-sized bird in the forest: the endangered, mysterious marbled murrelet, who lives on the sea and nests in the forest.

They don't make it easy on themselves. Built for life on the ocean, they choose to nest inland in primarily old growth forests - up to 40 miles inland. Not every year, the female lays a single egg on a platform with a slight depression (usually, a thick moss-covered branch) in an old growth tree, up to 200 feet above the ground - not a nest; the male and female take turns sitting on, and turning the egg up to 11 times a day (no nest cup to keep it from rolling off the branch!), and once it hatches, the parents fly back and forth to the ocean, fetching the single chick a single fish each time. When and if the chick fledges at about 35 days of age, the parents stop visiting with food, and the chick eventually makes its way, under cover of darkness, to the ocean - or not.

Adults are eaten by hawks and owls; eggs and nestlings are predated by crows and Ravens, jays, and flying squirrels. Some murrelets are caught in gill-nets and drown; it is thought that murrelet food (fish) may be adversely affected by trending warmer ocean currents.

These birds don't make it easy for observers: the marbled murrelet can fly up to 100 mph with very rapid wingbeats (think: 'flying raisin'), and it may approach its nest in the forest stealthily, so if you're looking for one, and you blink at the wrong time, or if it decides not to call, your chances are not great for seeing or hearing it.

But we try.


  1. A very interesting bird and so different from most. It's amazing they survive at all with the distances traveled and the dangers they face.

  2. Incredible little bird. Lovely writing again. I appreciate how in tune with nature you are.

    But following bear tracks? Wandering around in the dark? Well. then again, I've done it in my woods, but we are not known to have any large predators around. And, I do not have thousands of acres to get lost in.

  3. Merri, you just scared the bejesus out of me. Out in the dark, bear tracks, thumps and cracks? That little bird is amazing, but girl! What are you doing out there alone in the dark. At least tell me you were packing a sawed off shotgun!

  4. The track you saw is as big as the one we did! Still looks very wet!

  5. Waoooo it's amazing must be wonderful ...