By Gary Walker
When a couple decides to have their first child, it is typically seen as an effort to establish stability and “put down roots” in a community.
After the news of a male and a female California Gnatcatcher welcoming their first babies in a protected habitat in Playa del Rey, conservationists are as happy about this latest development as the proud papa and mama.
Peggy Nguyen of the Los Angeles World Airports Environmental Division confirmed that she saw the three gnatcatcher babies last month along with a team of biologists hired by LAWA.
“I think (this sighting) reflects the efforts by Los Angeles city officials and volunteers to restore coastal dune habitat,” she said.
The airport and an environmental volunteer restoration group, the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, have been working on removing a heavy invasive plant called ice plant from coastal dunes for decades, including in the area where the gnatcatchers are now living, the El Segundo Dunes, near the El Segundo Blue Butterfly habitat.
The native bird was photographed by naturalist Tracy Drake in March. The songbird had not been seen in the area in nearly two centuries, according to Drake, who also manages the Madrona Marsh in Torrance.
The gnatcatcher 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.
“I think it’s a significant happening, especially when you take into account the restoration of the area,” Drake said of the births.
While the recent familial extension is the first recorded development in an area near the Ballona Wetlands, the growing family could signal the return of the threatened bird, which has wildlife and environmentalists considering the possibilities of the return of other species.
Campbell Garrett, programs manager at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, sees the sighting and documenting of the small blue and white birds in March as one of the more important species discoveries in some time.
“The way that these populations are established are done through reproductive success,” 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. “This is significant considering that so far this has been a very dry year and it probably has not been a good breeding season.”
Playa del Rey-based Ballona Institute Executive Director Marcia Hanscom was delighted to learn that the birds had welcomed their first offspring into the nest.
“This new discovery of nesting endangered California Gnatcatchers on the Los Angeles coastal dunes points to the urgency of protecting every square inch of open space and habitat,” she said.
The arrival of the baby gnatcatchers comes during a time of upheaval for the local environmental area. The environmental analysis for the state-sponsored refurbishing of the nearby Ballona Wetlands is underway and is slated to be released later this year.
The California Coastal Conservancy, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the United States Army Corps of Engineers are the agencies that will be in charge of the 600-acre ecological reserve’s restoration.
In addition, the Annenberg Foundation is proposing to build an interpretive nature center near the Culver-Marina del Rey Little League fields along Culver Boulevard. Its plans for a 46,000 square foot building include an auditorium, classrooms, a public lobby, facilities for an animal adoption and care program, veterinary facilities for animals and exhibits on wildlife and domestic animals, among other things.
Hanscom, who has been a vocal opponent of Fish and Wildlife and what other environmental organizations say is their plan to restore Ballona, says it is incumbent upon the state agencies in charge of the imminent wetlands restoration project to be mindful of the new species that are returning before embarking on the project.
“While the sand dunes were not likely historically the perfect habitat for these birds, and ‘restoration’ of the dunes might actually alter the kinds of plants and habitat there – these birds are obviously seeking new territories, and the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve offers additional locations where this species might thrive by nesting and raising families,” she said.
Gnatcatchers typically prefer dense coastal sage scrub.
Garrett said the area where the new family has settled is probably at “the edge of its comfort zone,” but this could be an indicator of the gnatcatcher’s ability to adjust to less than ideal habitat. “I think it means that they’re more adaptable than what they thought,” he said.
Nguyen conceded while it may not be the bird’s typical habitat, the fact that the couple has nested and begun a family is significant.
“While they are usually associated with sage, they seem to like the same assemblage of plants (at the dune site),” she said.
Drake said the airport administration and Nguyen’s division have been crucial in recent developments surrounding the gnatcatcher’s return.
“Recovery happens when restoration begins,” she said. §