September 27, 2022
On September 22, a low-pressure system that had been hovering over the Pacific Ocean off of the California coast swept inland. The storm crossed the Cascade Mountains and the Columbia Plateau before pushing through Sandpoint, Idaho. Temperatures that day plunged 20°F compared to the day before. Clouds obscured the mountains as a cool autumn rain fell. And three days after the storm, a small bird from the vast offshore waters of the Pacific Ocean was seen near Sandpoint.
The bird was an ancient murrelet, and this is its story. More specifically, this is the story of the ancient murrelet I didn’t see and the shallow, inland lake where it briefly appeared. And both of these stories – the bird and the place – are remarkable ones.
An ancient murrelet at McArthur Lake
My friend River Corcoran, an avid birder and skilled naturalist, found the murrelet early on the morning of September 25. (Check out his Birding with River Corcoran YouTube channel.) As soon as he saw it fly past and land on the western side of McArthur Lake, he knew it was something unique. Fortunately, even though he wasn’t specifically looking for birds, he had his camera with him. River’s photos were unmistakable: the bird was an ancient murrelet, blown far inland.
Ancient murrelets are small, hardy diving birds of the open ocean. They nest on land, digging burrows on northern Pacific islands such as the Aleutians. But within three days of hatching, the chicks return to the sea. Accompanied by their parents, they swim for miles and miles, traveling far from the nesting islands. They dive to feed, catching small fish and shrimp-like euphasiid crustaceans.
So on September 27, River and I were back, hoping to get another look at the murrelet. McArthur Lake Wildlife Management Area, 18 miles north of Sandpoint, is a stunning habitat for wetland birds. It’s an extensive, shallow lake, the water crowded with pondweed (Potamogeton spp.) and other aquatic vegetation. A large marsh of cattails (Typha sp.), hardstem bulrush (Schoenoplectus acutus), and arrowhead (Sagittaria sp.) surrounds the open water. Around the marsh, there are alders, cottonwoods, and western redcedars. It’s a much wetter landscape than the Helena Valley, where redcedars don’t even grow and the marshes blend into greasewood flats and dry grassland.
Searching McArthur Lake
Our search to re-find the ancient murrelet this morning was unsuccessful. But in the process, we got to explore this habitat thoroughly and ponder how a murrelet showed up here. American coots were the dominant birds here on this fall day. And by dominant, I mean 2600 of them, dabbling their ivory bills in the water and nodding their heads rhythmically as they swam. At one point, we watched a young bald eagle circling the lake. A raft of 500 coots took off, pattering across the water as they distanced themselves from the raptor.
We heard a few late-migrating common yellowthroats making their chak calls from the cattails, where the occasional flock of red-winged blackbirds would erupt with an outburst of calls. Among all of the coots, we spotted small groups of American wigeons and gadwalls. A belted kingfisher stopped to perch, chattering, along one edge of the marsh. We watched a few pied-billed grebes, brown with very triangular heads, diving among the coots.
As a breeze picked up out of the north, we let it push us down the lake. We checked the coves along the west side, where River had spotted the ancient murrelet two days ago. But it wasn’t there this morning. Nor was it among the lily pads and the complex, watery trails at the south end of the lake. Here, instead, we found large patches of a feathery green plant emerging from the water. The plant was striking – and a species I hadn’t seen around Helena. I collected a sample and identified it. Common mare’s-tail (Hippuris vulgaris) is a tiny-flowered plant that looks like a massive moss. Emerging from shallow wetlands, it seems almost tropical, reminiscent of dinosaurs and giant cycads. And here at McArthur Lake, it’s another notable part of the wetland system that supports thousands of coots and ducks – along with the occasional, completely unexpected murrelet.
Among the coots
We checked the east edge of the lake on our way back, fighting the wind. We scanned the massive coot flocks, looking for a tiny gray seabird with a crisp white collar. Small flocks of gadwalls and American wigeons flew over us. Among all of the coots, we spotted a few horned grebes and ruddy ducks. But no murrelets were to be seen.
It’s no wonder: it’s extremely rare to find this ocean bird inland. In fact, this is only the fifth time that birders have documented one in the state of Idaho. Across North America, the smattering of inland records of ancient murrelets seem to peak in March and October/November. And according to ornithologist Nicolaas Verbeek, the appearance of ancient murrelets far inland seems to coincide with low-pressure systems sweeping east from the Pacific. So was it the storm that hit Sandpoint on September 22 that brought this seabird to Idaho?
The wind was blowing in our faces as we paddled the last stretch back to the dock. We hadn’t re-found the murrelet, but we were happy. Just to know that it was here, on this very lake, two days ago, was pretty special. And then, River spotted something strange in the water on our right: a boxy shape, too square for a duck. It was a head: silvery-gray with two small, rounded ears. An otter! It dove before we could get good photos. But as we let the canoe drift, it surfaced again, near the cattails. Another dive, another brief glimpse at us, and then it was gone, back into its watery world.
Ancient murrelets and wonder
What are the chances of standing along a beautiful marsh and finding a bird that should be on the open ocean: 600 miles away, across three mountain ranges and a desert of wheat? River Corcoran’s ancient murrelet sighting is the sort of story that can remind us all to stop, look, and wonder at all of the amazing goings-on around us.
It’s no wonder we didn’t find it again this morning: it is, after all, an incredibly rare bird to find this far inland. But almost anytime we go out into a wetland, curious and ready to learn about the creatures we share this place with, we’re guaranteed to make some interesting connections.
Today, it was the 2600 coots dabbling for tiny plants during their migration. It was the sight of a flock of wigeons against the Selkirk Mountains, the gift of a river otter, and getting to know the common mare’s-tail.
So if you need to remember what it is to wonder, spend a morning in a wetland near you. Bring a friend, your curiosity, and perhaps a pair of binoculars. You probably won’t find an ancient murrelet – but it’s always possible. And you’re sure to find something special.