Posted by: jessicaluo | September 8, 2008

A Day in the Life of a Common Murre Biologist

Guest Post by Morgan Gilmour and Sandy Rhoades, Common Murre Restoration Project

It’s 7:30 AM and we, the two Point Reyes seabird biologists, have just descended all 308 Point Reyes Lighthouse stairs, carrying telescopes, tripods, notebooks, maps, cameras, and binoculars.  We enter the equipment building next to the lighthouse, and set-up shop in a small room near the old diesel generator.  A gust of wind rushes into the room as we slide open the west-facing window with a high pitched screech.  It’s going to be another freezing, windy day inside the lighthouse.  But, at least it’s not foggy.  With wind, at least we can see the birds on the rock below.

Morgan Gilmour with a spotting scope

Morgan Gilmour with a spotting scope; Image by S. Rhoades

We quickly grab more layers of clothing to fight the wind, including down jackets, scarves, winter hats, and gloves.  We are now prepared to stand in front of this open window for the next five hours.  The date today?  June 14th, the middle of Common Murre breeding season.

We wedge two tripods into this one window.  Atop each tripod sits a high-powered Questar telescope.  We adjust and focus our telescopes until we are correctly aimed at the rocks directly below us, several hundred feet down.  Perched on the rock are thousands of black and white birds, strangely resembling penguins.  These birds huddle together, most so close to one another that it’s hard to tell where one bird ends and another begins.  There are about 16,000 pairs of murres breeding just offshore on Lighthouse Rock.

Murres at Lighthouse Rock, Image Courtesy of S. Rhoades

Murres at Lighthouse Rock, Image Courtesy of S. Rhoades

These birds are Common Murres, and actually not related to penguins.  Murres belong to a group called alcids and are more closely related to puffins than to penguins (alcids also include murrelets and auklets).  Like penguins, alcids swim through the water using their wings, but unlike penguins, they can fly.   Murres weigh about two pounds, and are about the size of a football.  They aren’t the most graceful flyers, and flap their wings as they run along the water to get a head start before lifting off.

Murres are seabirds that spend most of their life on the water, and come to land for a few months during the summer to breed. It is June now, and the murres have their breeding season in full swing.  Most birds are incubating eggs, ranging in color from white to bright blue or green, speckled with brown spots.  Murres don’t bother building nests, but lay their one egg directly on the rock.  The male and female will take turns incubating for about 30 days before the egg hatches.  Some of the eggs have begun to hatch, and little black and white balls of fluff can be seen throughout the colony, sitting at their parents’ feet.

Our job here is to watch a section of this huge rock, and “take attendance” of each of the birds sitting in this section.  We record which birds are here and which have eggs or chicks.  We keep track of these birds through the season and from year to year.  Murres typically return to the exact same spot on the rock each breeding season.  We have photos of the sections of rock, with numbered nesting sites.  We use this “map” to follow the breeding success of the Murres in each plot. This can be frustrating work.

Murre with Egg, Image by Common Murre Restoration Project

Murre with Egg, Image by Common Murre Restoration Project

One of us monitors “Edge Plot” and the other takes “Ledge Plot.”  Edge only has 62 breeding sites, and Ledge has over 80.  Edge Plot is along an edge of the colony where younger birds tend to set up territories, while Ledge is in the middle of the colony where the nesting sites are more established.  Murres don’t begin to breed until they are 4-6 years old, 4 and 5 year old birds may spend a couple years prospecting and establishing territories before laying eggs.

We start going through the attendance sheet:  “1, 2, 3, and 4 are here, but I can’t see 4’s egg!”…a few minutes later…  “Wait, I think #4 hatched!  I see a little fuzz ball moving!”

Murres are social birds, living in close quarters with one another on the rock.  Once their eggs begin to hatch, all the murres seem to get excited about having cute little chicks around. Sometimes a murre without a chick may “baby-sit” a chick from a nearby site; this can make things very confusing for us researchers!  Baby-sitters are often birds that lost their eggs earlier in the season. They may also be younger, inexperienced birds who are gaining experience with chicks by baby-sitting, or kin helping to raise their relative’s chick.

Murre Chick; Image courtesy of Common Murre Restoration Project

Murre Chick; Image courtesy of Common Murre Restoration Project

“Number 133 has a chick?!?  Where did that come from?  He never even had an egg!  Oh, wait, 133 must be baby-sitting for 35!  Yeah, now I can see 35, and there is nothing at his feet.”

“That’s 104, and there’s 98, and next to 98 is 121… where did 140 go?  Can I see the map again… Oh no, I think 140 is missing!  140 must have lost its egg.”

Murres are attracted to areas where other Murres hang out.  Even if they aren’t breeding, Murres will often sit in spots on the rock with other birds, and act like they are incubating eggs.

“Ugh, I’m still waiting to see 102’s egg.  He’s facing the rock, and won’t turn this way!  Oh, wait!  Fight!  A bird just came flying in with a fish and landed on top of a bunch of other birds.  They’re all pecking at it as it’s scrambling to get to its spot.  It’s climbing on top of their heads… now another bird is pecking at it, and it flew straight into 102!  102 turned around!  He has a bright green egg!  Finally!  We’ve been waiting for three weeks to confirm that he is actually incubating an egg!”

Murre with egg; Image courtesy of Common Murre Restoration Project

Murre with egg; Image courtesy of Common Murre Restoration Project

We stand in the window, bracing ourselves against the strong northwest wind, as the tripods and telescopes shake from the wind, trying to make sure that we see each and every bird and their egg or chick.  Most days, this takes several hours.

Do we do this everyday?  Pretty much, but when we’re not in the lighthouse monitoring murres, we have plenty of other work with seabirds to do in the Point Reyes Headlands.

Once a week, around 10:00, we take a break from monitoring the murres, and count them instead.  We focus the Questars on each of the rocks and sea stacks that line the western half of Point Reyes Headlands.  Other species breed here too including Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants, Western Gulls, Black Oystercatchers, and Pigeon Guillemots.  Brown Pelicans and Heermann’s Gulls, also roost on these sea stacks.  We count all of these other species on each of the rocks near the lighthouse, and then pack up, climb back up the 308 stairs with our telescopes, tripods, notebooks, maps, and cameras, and hike to other cliffs on the Headlands where we can see the other offshore rocks and continue our count.

While out here at Point Reyes, we also monitor disturbance to the birds.  Ravens, vultures, and pelicans can disturb murres and cormorants, causing egg and chick loss.  People, aircraft, kayaks, and fishing boats can also disturb birds by approaching too close to their rocks.

Why do we work out here in the wind and fog?  The Point Reyes murre colony is one of the more established colonies on the California coast.  By monitoring the numbers of birds on the rocks, the number of eggs that are laid, and the number of chicks that hatch and survive, we can get a good idea of how the murre and other seabird populations are doing from year to year.  Seabirds also act as indicators of the health of the ocean ecosystem, so the data we collect can give us insight into a much bigger picture of what’s going on in our ocean.

Two Common Murres on Water; Image by S. Rhoades

Two Common Murres on Water; Image by S. Rhoades

A couple of big oil spills have impacted murre populations and prompted the beginning of the Common Murre Restoration Project and our efforts to restore, monitor, and protect murres and other seabirds nesting here along the coast.  Our monitoring efforts give us an indication of how well the murre populations are recovering from these spills, and help to reduce other human caused disturbance to nesting seabirds.

Next time you’re out at the Point Reyes Lighthouse, take a moment at the observation deck before heading down the stairs.  Glance down at the big rock closest to the lighthouse.  From April to July you’ll see this rock packed with thousands of breeding Common Murres.  On a calm day you can even hear their murre-murring drifting up from the rock below.



  1. Hey, great post! I really enjoyed reading what you two wrote. It really gave me a feel for what it must be like to sit out there for that long. (As if I didn’t know, having monitored seabird behavior on Alcatraz for 4 years!) Talk about freezing!!
    Sandy, I didn’t realize that you were now working at Pt Reyes — I thought it was just on the SM County coast…

  2. Thanks for writing. It was fun to read. Morgan Gilmour is my cousin’s daughter so its neat to read about her work too! Larry

  3. Great information=) hope to come back again soon.

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