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Marbled murrelet nesting. Image credit: Lois Miller

Because responsible habitat management is a defining characteristic of private forest stewardship in B.C., we’ve put together a series of posts to help small-forest owners be the best forest stewards they can be.

In the first marbled murrelet post, we introduced some defining characteristics of the species and briefly explained why, as forest owners or land managers, it’s important to pay close attention to the marbled murrelet.

This second post includes information to help you identify nests, as well as better understand the habitat requirements of the marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus).

Where do marbled murrelets make their nests?

The marbled murrelet, like most seabirds, spends the majority of its life on the ocean and comes on land only to breed. Marbled murrelets nest in solitary pairs at very low densities, typically within 30 km of the ocean, but nests have been located up to 50 km or more inland.

Marbled murrelets choose a variety of tree species and stands for nesting, but their preferences are:

  • Coniferous old forest stands (alder and maple are rarely used)
  • Stands typically located within 50 km of marine foraging habitat and below 800 meters elevation
  • Moist conditions of north aspect slopes because they offer abundant epiphytes and moss
  • Steep slopes or broken terrain which allows easier flight access into the canopy

How to recognize a marbled murrelet nest?

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Marbled murrelet nest. Photo credit: Alan E. Burger

Typically, marbled murrelets select trees with large diameter branches covered in moss or lichen for nesting.

Murrelets are fast, but not maneuverable flyers. Nesting branches must be accessible from the air because the birds approach the nest with a ‘stall climb’ to reduce speed and enable them to land on the nest branch.

Nest branches usually include a ‘landing pad’ of approximately 1 meter adjacent to the nest (often located next to the trunk of the tree).

Overhead branches are also preferred because they offer visual cover from avian predators like goshawks, crows, ravens or jays.

What do marbled murrelets eat?

Marbled murrelets feed mostly on fish up to 8 or 9 cm in length and on shrimp-like crustaceans such as euphausids and mysids.

Their main prey species are sand lance, smelt and juvenile herring. Larger invertebrates (krill species) are also eaten if fish aren’t abundant. The sand lance appears to be the fish most often carried to nestlings.

Marbled murrelets normally feed in near-shore marine waters, including shallow bays, channels and fjords. Although groups of up to 100 murrelets may be attracted to sites where fish are concentrated, they feed as individuals.

The murrelet’s use their torpedo-shaped body and flipper-like wings to catch their prey underwater.

Marbled murrelet breeding chronology

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Marbled murrelet chick. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Marbled murrelets don’t start breeding until they are 2 or 3 years of age and they have low reproductive output. (Again, if it helps to imagine Morgan Freeman’s voice narrating this section, we understand).

Incubation lasts about 30 days and both males and females incubate the egg. Once hatched, nesltings are fed 2 to 4 times per day by both adults. Marbled murrelet parents often fly 60-100 km round trip to gather herring and sand lance to feed their young.

Activity in forest nesting areas is highest from May to August, while marbled murrelets congregate in sheltered waters with abundant prey during winter months.

You can find more information about marbled murrelet characteristics here.

Thanks again to TimberWest biologists, Molly Hudson and Dave Lindsay, for their expertise in helping us put this information together.