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The Rime of the Ancient Murrelet

November 23, 2010

Most of us learned about the Ancient Mariner in high school English, but I imagine that few were taught about the Ancient Murrelet.  These small auks breed in huge numbers along the Pacific coast, primarily in Haida Gwaii, the Queen Charlotte Islands.  They nest in burrows dug into the ground beneath the huge spruce, hemlocks and cedars.  Ancient Murrelets differ from most other auks in that they lay two eggs, not one.  The young birds are precocial upon hatching and usually leave the nest within two days of hatching.  Nest-leaving–which always happens at night–is a remarkable process.  The parents call at the burrow entrance and are answered by the chicks; the parents then lead them out of the burrow and down towards the sea.  The adults then fly to the sea and call for the young, which scramble through the forest giving wee-wee calls in answer to their parents’ chirrups.  This can be quite a sight when many young are leaving burrows in a large colony simultaneously.  Once on the water, the young and adults continue calling, finding each other through their familiar voices.  I remember one night kayaking off a small island in Haida Gwaii, when the water was alive with bioluminescence and the bay covered with murrelet chicks peeping to find their parents.

The birds gradually move away from the colonies, and many are seen in October and November in British Columbia coastal waters as they disperse southwards.  Then, sometimes rather abruptly, they leave the coastal waters and presumably spend the rest of the winter in the open Pacific.  It is at this time, in late October and November, that a few wayward murrelets can show up in the Interior of British Columbia.  In fact, they can show up almost everywhere in North America–the Ancient Murrelet is by far the most likely of its family to appear well inland on fresh water.  These are rare events–I’ve never seen an Ancient Murrelet on freshwater in my life–but there are more than a half-dozen records from Okanagan Lake alone.  Inland occurrences also happen in the spring, but that is even more unusual.

I received a message this morning from Jennifer Smith, a local birder, who said she’d found an Ancient Murrelet dead on the beach at Penticton.  I went down there with my son Russell and found the body almost entirely covered in the thick ice that had built up on the shoreline overnight.  I chopped it out of the ice to save the specimen for the UBC vertebrate museum.

Ancient Murrelet found dead on Okanagan Lake beach, Penticton, 22 November 2010

So, with deepest apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, (and yes, I know this is more or less in limerick form and not the meter that Coleridge used for is epic Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but I felt that if I was going to use this title for a blog I had to offer up some doggerel), I present this small ditty:

Ancient Murrelets are related to auks
Cousins to puffins, not hawks
They live in the ocean
But some get a notion
To fly eastward, and get quite a shock.

This one got it into his noggin
To fly to Lake Okanagan
The landing was dicy
The water was icy
And he’d forgotten to bring his toboggan.

After the long flight he was tired
And soon in the frozen shoreline was mired
He dreamed of the coast
And the islands he loved most
As he lay on the beach and expired.




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