Protecting the Cradle of Life

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Love Birds Save Trees

Environment: Trimming limbs on a developer's property would
wrongly displace courting herons, officials say.
December 01, 2000

State animal wardens on Thursday halted a Marina del Rey developer from trimming cypress trees on his waterfront property because the job would unlawfully disturb several pairs of great blue herons nesting there.

That decision came after an all-day standoff at the site, which began with a small predawn gathering of environmentalists. One bird lover perched on a branch to keep chain saws away from the tree at the end of Fiji Way. Later, a pruner's cherry picker left the scene unused.

Environmentalists and tenants of a nearby building slated for demolition claimed the warden's decision as a victory. They hope it's the first step toward protecting the trees year-round and stopping a plan to replace the aging apartments with a new $130-million luxury complex.

"It shows that citizens can make a difference," said Marcia Hanscom, executive director of Wetlands Action Network, a group that has fought other proposed developments close to the coast.

Developer Greg Schem said he hoped that trimming the trees would encourage the birds to nest elsewhere and allow him to cut down the trees and proceed with his construction project. Thursday afternoon's ruling won't stop his plans to demolish the nearby Villa Venetia apartment complex next year, he said. Schem said he will work out planning details with county officials.

Environmentalists say the birds have claimed the trees for at least three years because they have nowhere else to go. Other nearby trees were cut down recently, they say.

"I feel this is their last choice," Sierra Club biologist Roy van de Hoek said.

This month, the birds are in their "courtship phase." The male heron displays spiky white feathers on his chest designed to catch the eye of a female. He even adjusts his flying posture so that he travels more slowly, but looks better doing it, biologists say.

While animal wardens decided on the tree-trimming job, one heron stood in his

nest of twigs and grass, facing the mile-long wetland with apparently unwavering concentration. "His whole objective now is watching for females," Van de Hoek said.

The Villa Venetia complex sits on a prime piece of waterfront real estate between the ocean and the Ballona Wetlands. It also attracts endangered pelicans, hawks and ospreys.

After several hours peering at the heron nests through binoculars and interviewing ornithologists, state Fish and Game Patrol Lt. Kent W. Smirl ruled that any tree-trimming would be illegal harassment of the birds and a misdemeanor violation of state code.

No citations were issued to the developer, but federal Fish and Wildlife authorities were notified and Schem was ordered to report back to state authorities with more information on the herons.

The great blue heron is not an endangered bird, but state code prohibits any "intentional act which disrupts an animal's normal behavior patterns." It is also illegal, according to state code, to "needlessly destroy the nest or eggs of any bird."

Screenwriter Robin Hudson has watched the birds nesting from her third-floor apartment. She can point out every one of the nests in the 40-foot cypress outside her window.

"I've even saved some of [the birds]," she said. "They're so crowded up there that they knock each other out of the nest."

Schem's consultant, Lee Jones, said he studied the birds for seven months before concluding that the fledging birds had grown to adulthood and vacated their nests. As a result, tree-trimming would not harm them, he said.

"We wanted to find the appropriate time when we could encourage them to go elsewhere," Schem said. "We believe this is the proper time."

If the birds were forced out of the trees by trimming, they probably would relocate in trees on the Playa del Rey hillsides, Jones said.

"Worst-case scenario," Jones said, "they would go much farther away."