While sailing during the fall, I often see and hear dozens of pairs of these beautiful birds – always pairs. They’re this year’s young trailing after a parent and pleading “karrr, karrrrr” – which probably means “where’s the fish? I’m dying here”. Nesting in tightly-packed island colonies along the outer coast, they don’t build actual nests, but instead just lay a single pointy egg that tends to roll in a tight circle instead of off the cliff. Two or three weeks after hatching and still unable to fly, chicks hit the water by simply jumping off the cliff – followed by the male who teaches it how to catch fish and squid. Mom stays on the nest for several more weeks, probably enjoying the life of an empty nester.
Common murres stand almost vertical because feet are far back on the body as in other divers such as loons. In flight, they look heavy and very labored, as if they’re not at ease being airborne – but diving is where they truly excel. Murres can normally dive to 200 feet, and one was ‘clocked’ at 590 feet. Imagine the water pressure on a feathered creature at 590 feet! In fact, few places in the Salish Sea are more than 590 feet (north of Seattle it’s 930 feet deep – the Space Needle is 605 feet tall). Currently there are about a third the number of normal murres in our area, a hold-over from the El Nino event in 1983, and an example of how Global Warming and climate change can effect wildlife far after the actual event.
Larry Eifert paints and writes about wild places. His work is in many national parks across America – and at larryeifert.com.