This past July, researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and National Park Service (NPS) discovered that California common murre (Uria aalge californica) chicks hatched for the first time since 1912 on the Channel Islands.

Historically, murres nested on Prince Island — a small, rocky islet off San Miguel Island within Channel Islands National Park. This colony disappeared nearly a century ago, a likely result of human disturbance and egg harvesting.

Common murres are most abundant off the coasts of central through northern California, with tens to hundreds of thousands of these seabirds nesting at the Farallon Islands, off Trinidad Head, and at Castle Rock National Wildlife Refuge.

“This is an exciting finding,  certainly a historic one,” says Josh Adams, a seabird ecologist with the USGS Western Ecological Research Center. “The murres appear to have re-established their former southern range, perhaps benefiting from current ocean conditions.”

This new colony was spotted, perched on 100-foot-high sea cliffs, by Adams and colleagues Laurie Harvey, David Mazurkiewicz and Jonathan Felis during their research trips to this remote windswept island this summer. With this murre colony, Prince Island now hosts 13 nests, making it one of the most important and biologically diverse nesting habitats on the West Coast of North America.

Using photographic documentation, they counted some 125 birds and estimated that more than half may be incubating. The first successful chick hatching was observed on July 28, 2011.

Murres are football-sized seabirds with tuxedo-like coloring similar to penguins — except they are both efficient fliers and divers, descending as deep as 500 feet under water. They use their wings to propel themselves.

For the first two weeks murre chicks are fed by their parents, who dive for anchovies, sardines and juvenile rockfishes. At the end of those two weeks, baby murres waddle off the cliff edges to the surf below. They unite with their fathers, who raise the chicks at sea until they are capable of diving and feeding on their own.

The new colony is situated within Channel Islands National Park, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, and the recently designated Harris Point California Marine Protected Area at the west end of San Miguel Island. Seabird biologists will continue to evaluate the future of the common murre colony at Prince Island. Partners in this monitoring effort included the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program and the California Institute for Environmental Studies.