The dark, robin-sized marbled murrelet is a familiar sight on the waters of the Inside Passage. Their keening call, "kyeer, kyeer," carries across the water as pairs and small flocks keep track of each other. Marbled murrelets, listed as a threatened species in California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, are abundant in Southeast Alaska.
Murrelets tend to forage for schooling fish in pairs or small groups, although outside the breeding season or in areas where food is concentrated, they may be gregarious and form flocks of several hundred birds. They generally forage in shallow waters near shore or in deeper water farther from shore where upwelling and tidal rips bring food near the surface.
Unlike other alcids, marbled murrelets don't nest in colonies or on rocky cliffs. Their nesting habits are so elusive that this was the last bird in the United States to have its nesting site discovered and described. These birds nest inland in old-growth forests, usually flying at dawn and dusk. They lay a single egg high above the ground on the large, moss-covered branch of a tall tree. During the nesting season, parents take turns incubating the egg, switching duties every 24 hours. The marbled murrelet is one of the few birds that becomes more drab in its breeding plumage (a marbled brown). This is an adaptation that helps it hide from predators when on the nest.
What to look for: Murrelets on the wing are dark, fast, bullet-shaped birds that fly low over the water, flapping constantly. On the water, they are quick to dive.
Murrelets often feed in mixed flocks with other seabirds. Look for a tight flock of gulls hovering and dipping into the water, and it's likely there will be some murrelets there. The diving and swimming murrelets chase the forage fish up to the surface, and the gulls drive the fish down in the water column, benefiting both types of birds.
At sea in summer, look for birds on the water holding fish in their bills. These birds are likely waiting for dusk to make a food delivery to their nestling.