As the murre saga continues…

Thanks to some long awaited good luck which included an unusually high abundance of anchovies in Monterey Bay, large numbers of common murres have returned to California’s coastal waters.

So, on Thursday, December 5, an intrepid team of OWCN staff, biologists and wildlife rehabilitators braved one of the coldest nights of the year to capture common murres for the much anticipated OWCN research project to study the effects of chemical dispersants and chemically dispersed oil on the waterproofing of seabirds. Unlike many toxicological studies in this area, our goals are to investigate this acute effect in seabirds, then clean and return them to normal condition, and release them back into the environment. Oil spill response personnel are anxiously awaiting the findings of this study. The results will provide responders with the first scientific data that can be used to decide whether using a dispersant during a spill is more likely to help or harm seabirds.

Capture team members hailed from a wide diversity of wildlife organizations with a long history of successful and safe seabird captures including but not limited to OWCN, US Geological Survey, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, International Bird Rescue, and University of California, Davis. Captures were carried out by teams of 2-3 people in each of 4 small boats starting after sunset and continuing into the wee hours of the morning. A larger “mother ship” was positioned within the capture area to provide support for the smaller boats and to facilitate transport of captured murres to the shore. Team members used spotlights to find the birds in the dark, made a quiet approach and then netted the murres using species appropriate dip nets.

It sounds simple, but murres are cautious, quick swimmers and even better divers. It takes experienced crews and a lot of patience to successfully catch murres. Thanks to our expert teams we were able to capture over a quarter of the total number of murres needed for the study on our first effort! Of course murres are not the only sea life active in Monterey Bay at night. We encountered large rafts of jellies (aka. jelly fish), that appeared as graceful troupes of dancers wafting in and out of our beams of light. We also had the pleasure to see many other species of birds such as northern fulmars, rhinoceros auklets, phalaropes, murrelettes, loons, gulls and shearwaters. Finally, when we were not searching for birds, it was amazing to take a moment to look at the sky and see the Milky Way blazing as if it was a giant glittering diamond belt made just for the Earth. Since the night was so cold, hovering in the 20’s, we were particularly grateful for Nature’s beauty and our success in netting murres because it kept us from concentrating on our freezing feet!

Once caught, the murres were placed in seabird carriers and transported back to shore where OWCN staff and the Mobile Avian Stabilization Hospital trailer (MASH for short) were ready to give the birds a quick examination. Once each bird was determined to be healthy, it was placed in a specially designed net bottom enclosure with several other murres for company. The next day all the birds were transported to holding pools so they could relax and swim for a few days.

Alas, the weather forecast is for winds and rain that makes it unsafe for small boats to be out on the open water at night. We hope to return to the Monterey Bay area on Sunday December 8th to resume captures. We will appreciate any wishes for safe, successful and warmer captures that you would like to send our way.

–Nancy

Stephanie Herman (our new Wildlife Response Specialist) starts her first week with OWCN by preparing the "Screaming Grebe" for night ops to capture common murres.

Stephanie Herman (our new Wildlife Response Specialist) starts her first week with OWCN by preparing the “Screaming Grebe” for night ops to capture common murres.

Kyra Parker and Curt Clumpner from International Bird Rescue discuss plans for the night's operations.

Kyra Parker and Curt Clumpner from International Bird Rescue discuss plans for the night’s operations.

Chris Fiorello helps Becky Elias get fitted for her survival suit.

Chris Fiorello helps Becky Elias get fitted for her survival suit.

Open water, night operations require lots of equipment!

Open water, night operations require lots of equipment!

Kyra Parker and Tim Williamson attaching the motor to the "Purring Murre".

Kyra Parker and Tim Williamson attaching the motor to the “Purring Murre”.

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