Marbled Murrelet

November 5th, 2016: Marbled Murrelet at a favourite Howe Sound overlook

There are a few stunning pseudo-pelagic birding spots along Howe Sound north of Vancouver: Lighthouse Park, Whytecliff Park, and Klootchman Park, to name a few. Today it was Klootchman Park with two great birding friends (one visiting from out of east). I mean, how can you not sneak out of a local conference to show your visiting friend the best birds in the area?

Even if you don’t see any birds at Klootchman Park, it’s a wonderful place to visit to look over the sound, especially on a day like today.

Panoramic view from an overlook above Howe Sound
Panoramic view from an overlook above Howe Sound

With one scope between us, we set up shop and took turns scanning the sound for pelagic species while the others of us looked to the closer rocks and islets for shorebirds.

Looking toward coastal mountains across Howe Sound
Looking toward coastal mountains across Howe Sound

It wasn’t long before we located some interesting deeper water birds for my eastern friend. Surf and White-winged Scoter, Pelagic Cormorant, a Harlequin Duck, and some grebes. Lots of Bonaparte’s, Mew, and Glaucous-winged Gulls were also feeding nearby.

Two male Harlequin Duck
Two male Harlequin Duck

We were actually most interested in shorebirds (at my friend’s request). Specifically, we were looking for Rock Sandpiper. Rock Sandpipers are very uncommon visitors this far east of the open ocean, sheltered as we are by Vancouver Island. Just a short ferry and drive northwest to Sechelt (and environs) and you can find them easily. We hemmed and hawed over a distant bird associating with Surfbirds and some Black Turnstones, thinking it could be a Rock Sandpiper. But some good photos proved it to be a Dunlin. Maybe next time!

A ferry crosses the sound further north in front of snowy peaks
A ferry crosses the sound further north in front of snowy peaks

But the highlight for me (with the Surfbirds and Turnstones not far behind) was the single Marbled Murrelet we found. It was a speck, floating all alone toward the strait.

A somewhat typical photo of a distant, non-breeding Marbled Murrelet (but much closer in this photo than the one we saw this day)
A somewhat typical photo of a distant, non-breeding Marbled Murrelet (but much closer in this photo than the one we saw this day)

These tiny little alcids are endangered largely due to the decrease in their nesting habitat. Except for more northern populations, these murrelets nest in trees, unlike most alcidae. Specifically, they need mature conifers like Coastal Redwood (also endangered), Douglas Fir, Sitka Spruce, and Western Hemlock: our PNW specialties. They feed on interesting things like Sand Lance, Shiner Perch, Capelin, Pacific Herring, and some invertebrates.

As with storm-petrels, I find it incredible that such a tiny bird can live out on the water. Of course, storm-petrels are much farther out to sea than these coastal birds, but it’s still amazing to me when I see two specks (Marbled Murrelets tend to be in pairs) so far from land. Today’s lone murrelet instilled a particularly strong, sympathetic forlornness for this endangered species.

Marbled Murrelet in breeding plumage in flight at the base of Howe Sound
Marbled Murrelet in breeding plumage in flight at the base of Howe Sound

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