By Gary Walker
A recent sighting of a small blue and white songbird near the habitat of another protected species is drawing the attention of naturalists and bird watchers.
Naturalist Tracy Drake captured four California Gnatcatchers with her camera last month near the habitat of the El Segundo Blue Butterfly in Playa del Rey.
“This is very significant since (the gnatcatcher) has not been documented in the area since the 1800s,” said Drake, who is also the manager of the Madrona Marsh in Torrance.
The gnatcatcher, polioptila californica, has a range of Southern California to Baja California Sur. It has been listed as “threatened” by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service for 20 years and critical habitat designation under the Endangered Species Act is pending court ordered review.
The discovery of the bird has caught the attention of Dr. Campbell Garrett of the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.
“The discovery of a small population of California Gnatcatchers on the El Segundo Dunes is significant for several reasons. First and foremost, it shows that habitat protection and restoration aimed at one species- in this case the El Segundo Blue Butterfly – can have much broader impacts by enhancing habitat quality for a whole suite of other species adapted to living in the same specialized habitat,” explained Garrett, who is considered an authority on the field identification and status and distribution of the birds of California, particularly of the Los Angeles region.
“Secondly, it is yet another example of dispersal abilities of the California Gnatcatcher being greater than what biologists might have thought a couple of decades ago.”
Jonathan Coffin, a nature photographer who has documented several wetlands birds in the nearby Ballona Wetlands, said he has seen the gnatcatcher over the years in Area C, a portion of the wetlands located north of Jefferson Boulevard.
“One of the mysterious questions is will it be staying and breeding here?” Coffin asked.
Drake thinks that may be a possibility. “What was significant to me was that they were in breeding territory,” she said.
Los Angeles Audubon Society President Travis Longcore is also interested in the return of the gnatcatcher.
“This represents a significant expansion of its geographical area,” said Longcore, a professor of urban ecology and conservation at the University of Southern California.
The gnatcatcher is the latest rediscovery of a species near the Ballona Wetlands that has environmentalists excited about the possibilities of other denizens of the area returning. The Argonaut broke the discovery in 2010 of a group of yellow sand dune flowers, the Orchid’s Yellow Pincushion, in an area of the Ballona Wetlands on the Marina Peninsula that had not been seen in the area since the turn of the 20th century.
A large swath of the rare native flowers is now enclosed from the public along Pacific Avenue. They were discovered during a city beautification project by biologist Robert “Roy” van de Hoek, co-director of the Playa del Rey based-Ballona Institute.
Three weeks after its discovery, the Orcutt’s Yellow was upgraded from endangered to imperiled by the state Department of Fish and Game, now the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The least Bell’s vireo, another endangered bird, returned to the area in 2010. The birds built a nest in the freshwater marsh at Playa Vista and another in Area B, west of Lincoln Boulevard in the wetlands.
Habitat appears to play an important role in the expansion and development of a species. Since the sand dunes where they mate and the buckwheat plants that they feast on were planted in the El Segundo Dunes, the population of the endangered blue butterflies has increased 30 percent from 111,562 to 116,474 as of 2011, according to a seasonal field study of the Dunes Restoration Project. The butterflies are protected by fencing in their preserve near Rindge Avenue and Waterview Street in Playa del Rey.
According to Garrett, gnatcatchers that are doing relatively well in larger patches of protected habitat on the Palos Verdes Peninsula appear to be capable of breaking through relatively unwelcoming urban habitat to reach places like the El Segundo Dunes and the Ballona region. “It shows that other patches of habitat that either appear suitable for gnatcatchers or could be restored for suitability now have a very real potential to be occupied by dispersing gnatcatchers,” he said.
The discovery of the songbird is taking place against the backdrop of the 600-acre Ballona Wetlands and a planned restoration of the ecological reserve, which will be led by Fish and Wildlife and the California Costal Conservancy. The environmental impact report on the restoration is slated to be released later this year.
Garrett thinks the state agencies should be cognizant of the sightings of the gnatcatcher and how it might fit into their plans for refurbishing the wetlands.
“This should inform the Ballona project by emphasizing the importance of protecting and restoring upland habitats (as well as tidal wetlands) and also has relevance to habitat preservation in the nearby Baldwin Hills,” he said. “Given that some of the most significant occupied habitat for California Gnatcatchers in Los Angeles County has little or no formal protection, it’s very significant that a population has now been found on the protected El Segundo Dunes.”
Drake says that seeing and documenting the gnatcatchers is one of the joys of bird watching and communing with nature.
“There are some times when it is awesome to be a naturalist,” she concluded. “Many times you get to witness incredible beauty and sometimes you make important discoveries.”