In early June each year, the largest Bolsa Chica wetland nesting island in Huntington Beach is white with elegant terns watching over their eggs as they begin to hatch in ground nests.
Until this year.
On May 13, two drones illegally flew over the nesting area, one of which crashed on the island. Fearing the attack of a predator, the few thousand birds abandoned their nests, leaving behind some 3,000 eggs.
There will be no hatchlings this year on the sandy island, which is now littered with eggshells.
Peter Knapp, who has watched endangered and threatened birds in the reserve for more than 20 years, had never seen such a large-scale egg drop there, according to reserve manager Melissa Loebel.
Nick Molsberry, director of the State Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, said drones have become a permanent problem in wetlands – a problem not encountered on other lands in the state County of Orange because they lack highly visible nesting areas.
“It’s ironic,” he said. “Drone owners are attracted to colonies of nesting birds and then their actions destroy them.”
Dogs off leash
Drone activity has increased with the popularity of remote-controlled flying cameras, but this is only part of the illegal activity disrupting the usually abundant birdlife on the reserve, according to Loebl and Molsberry.
With the pandemic driving more and more people to the outdoor spaces, last year around 100,000 visitors visited the Bolsa Chica reserve – up from around 60,000 the year before, Loebl said.
This has not only contributed to the increase in drone activity, but also to more dogs and bikes on the trails, all of which are illegal. Another problem is the development in Brightwater of multi-million dollar homes on the hill at the north end of the reserve overlooking the wetlands. While most residents respect the estuary’s sensitive nature, there are a few annoying crooks who allow their dogs to enter the area.
“Sometimes it’s the residents who feel empowered, who think they should be able to use the land as they see fit,” Molsberry said.
As with drones, dogs mean fewer birds in factor’s bird sanctuary. With nearly 1,500 acres, the reserve is the largest saltwater marsh between Monterey Bay and the Tijuana River estuary. Some 800 species of plants and animals live in or migrate to Bolsa Chica, of which 23 are endangered, threatened or of special concern.
“We have seen a significant increase in the number of dogs, especially off-leash,” said Loebl. “It’s devastating for wildlife and it’s the perfect nesting season. Dogs chase birds and birds abandon their nests.
There are only three state game wardens for Orange County, which means that one of them is typically on site in the Bolsa Chica wetlands for three to six hours during d ‘one week. However, they respond to the reservation when there are complaints and Molsberry encourages the public to call 888-334-CALTIP (888-334-2258) when they see a dog or drone in wetlands.
“It gives me a justification for spending more time here,” he said.
Molsberry said he writes tickets for all violators, although some apparently haven’t seen the signs banning dogs, bikes and drones.
“This is an area where I don’t give warnings,” he said.
The May 13 drone that crashed on Tern Island has not been claimed, although Molsberry said he plans to examine the memory card to try to determine its owner. The other drone from May 13th crashed into a fenced nesting place for the lesser endangered tern and while hunting birds in the area, they returned to their nest. The owner of that drone contacted the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife to retrieve his drone and was cited, Molsberry said.
In less than two hours during Molsberry’s visit to the reserve on Thursday, June 3, two drones appeared. One was operated from a reserve parking lot by an owner who was immediately cited, and who said he was not aware of the ban. Another was apparently operated by someone near Bolsa Chica State Beach, complicating the app as it can be difficult to locate owners at offsite locations.
Molsberry said his ministry is coordinating a program that will involve posting volunteers at popular entry points to provide information and deter those with drones, dogs and bikes. And Loebl said she was hosting a presentation for the Brightwater Homeowners Association.
“Most people obey the rules,” she said. “But we have people who don’t care.”