Protecting the Cradle of Life


By Marcia Hanscom
"Herons' Park Forever" shouted the Los Angeles Times headline over a gleeful editorial supporting public acquisition of the Ballona Wetlands, an area that is important for the survival of the Great Blue Heron.
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The majestic and beautiful Great Blue Heron virtually disappeared from the Ballona Valley about 100 years ago when hunters shot them for their feathers, which were fashionable in hats at the time. Recently the stunning birds have begun to reappear. The Los Angeles Times' editorial staff noticed the Great Blue Heron, one of
the most charismatic species of the Ballona Valley, which has resumed year-round residency in the greater Ballona Wetlands ecosystem only during the last 15 years.

Today, it isn't hunters with rifles who are killing them off, but property managers and developers. Trucks and cherry pickers maneuver to the trees. Out come chainsaws and machetes. They turn on the engines with their gas fumes and whirring and whining and grinding and breaking sounds as armies of gardeners hack out nests that the birds return to as their homes every year.

It was in the late 1990s when the California Coastal Commission originally chastised the Playa Vista developers, Playa Capital, for bringing for charging the trees within the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve where the Great Blues were nesting.
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At the same time, well-meaning educational groups began pointing, gawking and making noise near one of the herons' favorite nesting trees. Heron parents weren't so keen on all this fuss, so the following year they moved their nests (the proper term for a nesting tree is a "rookery" ) to some trees just outside of the open wild lands.  These trees had been planted decades ago when Marina del Rey was first built atop the marsh land.

The Heron parents found trees for their new quarters near the Villa Venetia apartments and also near the Mariners' Village residential complex.  Both of these residential areas are close to the ecological reserve where adult birds could find nest materials and their young -- just fledged from the nest -- could seize lizards and small mammals while learning the Heron skill of spearfishing in water with refracted light.

For 10 years, citizens organized and lobbied to protect the new Great Blue Heron nests - which had blossomed into a full and growing rookery. There were victories and defeats, but some semblance of stability surrounded the rookeries.
Within a couple of years, though, apartment residents were watching in horror as apartment building owners hacked out nests from the trees at Villa Venetia. Residents and environmental advocates complained bitterly and the California Coastal Commission (CCC) declared that they would do what they could to protect the birds in the Ballona Valley.

CCC members then designated all roosting and nesting sites for Great Blue Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons, Snowy Egrets and Great Egrets to be ESHAs (Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area.)   A new complex owner, Lyon Communities, was now renovating the Villa Venetia and agreed not to harm the remaining nesting trees.   So, the Great Blues were safe for a while. But a real estate slump was on its way. Within several years, a new lessee took over ownership of the buildings -- that are located on Los Angeles County-owned property -- and within several years and pro-Heron promises were forgotten. The Herons were evicted again.
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Today, all remaining nests now are at Mariners Village in Marina del Rey.

Last year (2013), right before Christmas, just as residents were being notified that the County and the lessee of Mariners Village had plans to remove all trees and other landscaped plants at the lush Mariners Village, residents began to notice that nests and trees were removed. And this time, the nests were for many species besides Herons, including Black-crowned Night Herons and Double-crested Cormorants.

Because of the birds, especially the Herons (but also Hummingbirds and passerine songbirds traveling through on migration), many residents of Mariners Village had considered their complex "a nature sanctuary."

If this last vestige of a nesting site for the Great Blue Heron is destroyed, this species may visit on occasion, but likely no longer will be a year-round resident of the Ballona Wetlands.  

Many urban residents and visitors to the Ballona Valley notice the regal stature of the Great Blue Heron and wonder at its sheer size and beauty, its white, blue and grey feathers gracefully splaying in the wind, its long neck and powerful beak snapping forward in search of prey; and its five-to-six-foot wing-span that is so breathtaking during flight.  

Henry David Thoreau wrote in the 1850s that he thought the Great Blue Heron might be considered for citizenship.  

Determined strength combined with gracious beauty as the Great Blue Heron lifts off from the marsh reminds us of our own strength, our own determined nature, our own commitment to protecting the wildness in our midst.

Herons' Park Forever!

To see the Los Angeles Times editorial, click here.

“When the heron takes to flight, what a change in size and appearance! . . . . There go two great undulating wings pinned together, but the body and neck must have been left behind somewhere.” -- Henry David Thoreau