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photo by Gary Hayes
Don't let the name fool you. Although the Common Murre is the Northwest's most populous seabird, there are many things that make murres an extraordinary opportunity for bird watchers.
Murres spend most of the year at sea, but return to near shore rocks all along the coast to nest each spring. On some rocks, you can observe crowded colonies of tens-of-thousands of murres. With a bird spotting scope or binoculars, this sight is definitely a "wow," especially for casual beach goers who are unaware of this amazing show happening just a few hundred yards away. The nearly upright stance and dark brown and white markings of murres make them look similar to penguins when viewed from a distance.
Growing to nearly 18 inches, they are one of the largest seabirds that can still fly, though their flight skills are far from graceful. They fling their bodies off their perch and drop like rocks as they flap their wings rapidly to finally gain flight. Landing is another adventure. Living shoulder to shoulder in large colonies that often cover the entire surface of rocks, murres lower themselves into their place like a helicopter or can come awkwardly tumbling into their neighbors. They are much more graceful in the water, where they are capable of diving to great depths for fish.
The recovery of Bald Eagle populations has resulted in more excitement for bird watchers observing murres. In recent years, eagles have begun to frequently raid the murre colonies, where the awkward seabirds make an easy meal. The approach of an eagle can send thousands of birds, often the entire colony, flushing from the rock and leaving their unprotected eggs to the mercy of other winged predators. What the future holds for murres is a big question.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service believes that, due to eagles, no murres have successfully nested over the past few years on the North Oregon Coast. Some minus tides make it possible for beach goers to approach these nesting rocks. Care should be taken not to disturb nesting seabirds, who are already facing great odds to raise a chick. All of Oregon's coastal rock formations are part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge and no climbing or access is permitted. Also in this shot, Brandt's Cormorants with their distinctive blue throat patch.
We've posted a link to a great video about the eagles and murres from Oregon Public Broadcasting's "Oregon Field Guide" on our Facebook page. You can find it at: Facebook.com/CoastExplorerMagazine.