Court ruling leaves the endangered California gnatcatcher poised for a comeback in Playa del Rey and beyond

By Gary Walker

An endangered California gnatcatcher, spotted in early July, rests on a branch in the LAX El Segundo Blue Butterfly Preserve. Photo by Morgan Ball / Wildlands Conservation Science.

Local conservationists were thrilled when a family of endangered California gnatcatchers nested near the El Segundo Blue Butterfly Preserve in Playa del Rey six years ago.

Despite their paucity in nature, the dusky gray songbird had been subjected to numerous campaigns by ranchers and developers for removal of its protected status. The most recent attempt was dismissed by a federal court this summer, allowing the gnatcatcher to maintain its place on the Endangered Species Act list.

Locally, the court’s ruling allows Los Angeles World Airports’ Environmental Programs Group to continue work on a habitat restoration plan for the gnatcatcher and other species of indigenous flora and fauna.

California gnatcatchers continue to maintain a foothold locally, with LAWA Environmental Affairs Officer Carolyn Lin confirming that recent surveys of the preserve have identified two nesting pairs and five foraging juveniles.

Restoration biologist Margot Griswold has been planting coastal sage scrub, the California gnatcatcher’s only natural habitat, along several acres within the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook.

“I’m hopeful that they can move toward the overlook. I know they do travel. They’d have to run out of territory [in Playa del Rey] and move over toward the Ballona Wetlands. That could mean that the population there is growing,” Griswold said.

Much of the California gnatcatcher’s habit was devastated by agricultural interests in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said Jared Knicley, an attorney for the Santa Monica-based Natural Resources Defense Council, one of several organizations who mounted a defense of the California gnatcatcher’s protected status.

“The plaintiffs did not submit any evidence that showed that they were harmed by its presence, so the court did not have to rule on the merits of the case,” explained Knicley, who sees the court’s decision as a victory for more than one species.

“This is a victory for the gnatcatcher and for all the other creatures that rely upon its existence in the ecosystem,” he said.

Endangered California gnatcatchers are nesting in LAX’s El Segundo Blue
Butterfly Preserve
Photos by Morgan Ball / Wildlands Conservation Science