Book Review: Rare Bird

Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet, by Maria Mudd Ruth, Rodale Inc. (www.rodalestore.com), 2005, 298 pages, $23.95.

Up until the latter half of the 20th century, ornithologists were plagued by an oological mystery: Of the  700-plus birds known to nest in North America/Canada, the nest (and nesting behavior) of only one species – the marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) – had eluded discovery. The marbled murrelet was first collected in 1776 in Alaska’s Prince William Sound by Dr. William Anderson, chief surgeon and naturalist to Captain James Cook’s HMS Resolution during their voyage in search of the Northwest Passage. At journey’s end, it took more than a decade before one of Anderson’s murrelets was formally designated in 1789 as the type specimen to describe this new species of auk. At the time, so little-to-nothing was known about this elusive bird that even famed naturalist John James Audubon fudged it by illustrating the marbled murrelet (known to him as a “slender-billed guillemot”) clinging to (and by association, nesting on) a seaside cliff like other typical murrelets based on the hearsay of fellow naturalists. But what naturalists didn’t know was that not only did the webbed feet of this species rarely touch terra firma, but finding the nest of this singular species would tantalize searchers for the next 185 years.

In 1923, while visiting Humboldt County, ornithologist Joseph Grinnell made the following observations in his journal (July 23):

“Each morning since I’ve been here, I’ve heard cries of some sort of birds high overhead in the fog. They could only be heard very early. At first I thought they might be hawks. Then I began to remember some of the same notes years ago, on Pescadero Creek in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and, I think, Sitka, Alaska – marbled murrelets! This morning, the fog was higher than usual and also the producers of the cries were out later than usual, up to 5:35 A.M. And I saw them! Birds with small chunky bodies, and rapidly, continuously beating small wings, like a small duck, very high, sometimes entering the fog… Mostly when I heard them, they were hidden in the fog… It would be easy to imagine them passing between the ocean to the west of us and the forested slopes of the mountain within half a mile of us. Truly a mystery!”

How could the nest of this seabird – a bird known affectionately today as a fog lark, dip chick, buzz bomb, little hell diver, and described at times as a flying potato or dark meteor – go undiscovered for so long? Given their cryptic nesting behaviors – crepuscular flights, inland sites, and proclivity for heights – simply put, no one knew where to look. Along the shore? In the woods? In trees or on the ground? Today, any good field guide will tell you that marbled murrelets nest along the Pacific Northwest up to 40 miles inland in old-growth forests on the thick, mossy limbs of mature redwoods, fir, spruce, cedars, and hemlocks at heights of 150 feet or more. Few guides, however, will explain how hard to come by these few facts proved to be.

Maria Mudd Ruth unravels this mystery in Rare Bird, an examination and exaltation of the evasive auk that taunted naturalists across one continent, two countries (United States and Canada), three centuries, and four states (Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California). Rare Bird plays out through Ruth’s viewpoint as a professed “accidental naturalist” naive to the world of ornithology or field biology. Through the marbled lenses of one enraptured by this enigmatic bird, Ruth brings to life the stories of the naturalists who toiled at great lengths, early hours, and towering heights to gather the raw data necessary to solve this mystery. Ruth moves effortlessly through time and space, crossing centuries and state lines to walk in the footsteps of intrepid explorers or in the shoes of exhausted researchers. From Anderson and Cook’s type collection in 1776 to tree trimmer Hoyt Foster’s fortuitous find at 148 feet atop a Douglas fir in 1974 to the wood mills, gill nets, oil spills, and raven kills in between, Ruth recounts the marbled murrelets’ rocky past with patience, compassion, and humor.

In short, Rare Bird is well done, a fitting tribute to the secretive marbled murrelet and the rare breed of biologists that have dedicated their lives to protecting it.

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