June 8, 2004

That's Not Snow
A heron colony in Marina del Rey makes a mess and halts bulldozers
Mira Tweti
Special To The Times

A flock of herons has turned a corner of Marina del Rey into a loud, messy bird tenement one that some nearby human residents are eager to protect in part to save their own homes.

The 38 pairs of birds that live in the palm and cypress grove on the edge of the Ballona Wetlands, as close as 7 yards from Villa Venetia apartment balconies, are now rearing chicks.

No one would blink at sparrows, but the adult birds stand about 4 feet tall and in flight look like gawky gliders.

"They get really loud," says neighbor Glen Sagon. "It's like living in a den of pterodactyls."

Besides making noise, they produce a blizzard of white droppings.

Folks cover their cars and the sidewalk appears blanketed with snow.

"There would be shooting around here if it were up to me," says resident Jason Ouvaroff. "I love animals, but they are too big."

Most apartment dwellers, however, defend the birds.

"With cats and dogs you put up with fur on your sofa," says Lorin Roche, who moved into the complex 11 years ago and has watched the heron colony grow. "We put up with stuff with the herons, but we get so much from them. They are amazing."

Male herons build a nest and lure a female. When she lands, he departs and returns with a branch while calling to her.

She adds the branch to the nest, and the pair may bond for life, says Sierra Club biologist Roy van de Hoek, who has studied herons for 10 years.

When the company that owns Villa Venetia sought to replace the apartments with a $130-million high-rise condominium project, it pruned trees to prevent nesting. Tenants sent e-mails and contacted the governor in protest. "One tenant perched on a cypress branch at 5 a.m. to prevent any pruning," says former resident K.C. Mancebo. "It was an urban standoff."

As matters stand, the property is in escrow, and the owners say they expect the buyers to protect the birds.

"With care, thought and planning, peaceful coexistence is possible," says a representative of the company that owns the property.

Meanwhile, the California Coastal Commission has designated the trees an environmentally sensitive habitat.

As such, it warrants protection, says Sarah Christie, legislative coordinator for the commission.

"We have an obligation to protect sensitive habitat," says Christie. "We are fully prepared to intervene if anyone pulls out their chain saw."

Robert Jan 'Roy' van de Hoek
Los Angeles, California
The Los Angeles Times article, It's Not Snow, accompanied by two photographs, is about a Great Blue Heron colony (heronry) in Marina Del Rey, California. The article was written by Mira Tweti. She misquoted me. I did not state that herons mate for life. I have done extensive research in the literature and I have found no evidence that herons mate for life. Mira Tweti is not an investigative journalist, nor objective. She was determined to say they mate for life. It would have been nice if the LA Times' editor would have "fact checked" my quote. However, I place the blame squarely on Mira Tweti as a poor journalist.

I spoke to Mira Tweti extensively on the phone as part of an inteview. Unfortunately, she misunderstood my communication to her regarding the number of Great Blue Heron nesting in Marina Del Rey. In the beginning of her story, Mira Tweti states that 38 pairs nest there. That is incorrect. It is actually 38 adults, of which 19 are male and 19 are female, which together form 19 pairs of nesting Great Blue Heron. Apparently, her understanding of science and also arithmetic leave something to be desired as Mira Tweti appears confused at times. I was very clear in describing the population statistics of the heron colony at Marina del Rey.

Mira Tweti did quote me correctly regarding being a biologist and a representative of the Sierra Club.

Regarding K.C. Mancebo, she is a friend of mine, who speaks with passion for protection of the Cypress trees and the herons. She and her husband were married with the herons several years ago. It was spectacular that they exchanged wedding vows there. Unfortunately, this aspect of the heron story was not reported by Mira Tweti. Perhaps the LA Times editors cut this part from the story. It would be nice to see the whole story as it was submitted to the LA Times by Mira Tweti, in order to show how the LA Times can change the tone and meaning of a story when they desire to do so.

As for the quote by Sarah Christie, another friend of mine, it is excellent that as a bureaucrat for the state of California, it is remarkable that Sara Christie had courage and boldness to speak on behalf of California Coastal Commission. Sarah Christie is correct to have stated that the trees and the herons are protected by state laws. I respect her very much for that quote, which I was glad to see that Mira Tweti captured in her article. However, I gave Mira Tweti the contact information for Sarah Christie. And fortunately for us, the public and readers of the newspaper, the LA Times did not cut out that portion from the story.

As for the condition of the heron colony,now several years later after the story was written and printed in the LA Times, there is much to report. First, the heron colony is still under threat by the County of Los Angeles, its Board of Supervisors, and their Department of Beaches and Harbors. And yet, thus far, the state of California has "trumped" the County of Los Angeles. However, politics and the money and greed of developers, manipulating the Democratic Party and democratic principles are getting mighty sticky.

Yet, for the moment, these herons continue to thrive and adapt at Marina Del Rey.

The coercive, corrupt, and covert activites of the County of Los Angeles employees that work in the Department of Beaches and Harbors is unbelievable. This county agency has deliberately been trying to eliminate herons and trees from the Marina, which is under their management supervision. The Director, Stan Wisnewski has gone public to say that he dislikes the herons and trees in Marina del Rey, and that he favors making the Marina overpopulated and unliveable by crowding more and more people into the Marina. In my humble opinion, as a scientist and a citizen, he needs to resign, effective immediately, or the County Board of Supervisors needs to fire him for being corrupt and for lying to the public repeatedly.

K.C. Mancebo and her newlywed husband were both evicted shortly after the story was printed by the owner of the Villa Venetia Apartment, namely Greg Schem. He has now sold the apartment to a new company. Interestingly, they were married in a ceremony on the lawn patio of the Villa Venetia Apartment, amongst the heron's nest trees. The couple told me that they chose to have their wedding ceremony amongst the herons intentionally. It was clear that this newlywed couple "loved" the herons and trees. They are both angry and sad that Greg Schem has evicted them. It appears that their vocal opposition to the removal of the cypress trees and heron nests is what led to their eviction. Their apartment unit was adjacent to the heron breeding colony in the cypress trees.

The article in the Los Angeles Times unfortunately never mentioned the name of these trees. They are the magnificent Monterey Cypress, a California Native Plant, whose natural home is in Monterey, Carmel, and Point Lobos, on the beautiful central California Coast. These cypress are the only trees of this kind in Marina Del Rey. These six Monterey Cypress Trees grace the Marina in a most beautiful way.

The LA Times article also did not mention that these tree were planted approximately 40 years ago, shortly after the Marina was constructed. It took these last 40 years for the Monterey Cypress to reach their current stature, at nearly 50 feet tall, so that the Great Blue Heron males would find them suitable for building a nest and courting a female. And now that their height and robust growth of limbs are at their maximum, the developer and the County of Los Angeles want to remove them. It is absolutely ridiculous that this is being considered at this time. There was a distinctive investment of money and planning to plant these trees 50 years ago. To remove or prune these cypress trees any further would be a terrible blow to the herons.

The LA Times article was beautifully graced with a photograph of a Great Blue Heron with its mate. The two herons were at their nest on a strong limb of the Cypress Tree, high up near the top, surrounded by the foliage of the cypress. The photograph focuses on an adult heron, looking down at its young. The three young herons are looking up a their parent, waiting anxiously for the parent to regurgitate food to them. The adult could be the male or the female, as both share in feeding their young daily. It is hard work for both parents to catch enough food in the nearby Ballona Wetlands so that these three fast-growing offspring will have a chance at life, on their own in a few short months.

There is a second photograph which accompanies the article in the Los Angeles Times. This photo shows the impact on a car of the heron excrement. A picture certainly tells a thousand words. Both photographs were taken by Bryan Chan, a LA Times photographer.

The writer of this "Afterword" been studying the Great Blue Heron at this breeding location in Marina Del Rey for approximately 10 years now. It is the only nesting (breeding) colony of Great Blue Heron in the entire Ballona Wetlands Ecosystem. The small satellite colony in the Mariners Village, is an important extension of the Villa Venetia Colony because it is in a clear line of sight, so scientifically, I consider it an associated subset heronry of the larger heronry at the Villa Venetia apartment and its associated trees that continue toward Fishermen's Village.

The Marina del Rey harbor was once part of the extensive Ballona Wetlands, which former County Supervisor Burton Chace, now deceased, had repeadedly referred to as a "mosquito-infested swamp", when actually it was a bird paradise, a sanctuary, a home, and habitat for thousands of birds, marine life, native plants, butterflies, fish, mammals, and other wildlife.

Fortunately, the Great Blue Heron and a few other birds have been resilient and they were able to return to reclaim portions of the Marina harbor as part of their former wetland ecosystem.

Beginning in 2005, another unique and fully-protected rare bird, related closely to the pelican, and known as the Double-crested Cormorant, began roosting in the cypress trees. This cormorant, like its relative, the Brown Pelican, declined rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s due to DDT pesticide poisoning that took place across the United States. Rachel Carson, in her book, Silent Spring, discussed the cormorant and its plight. The National Audubon Society placed this Cormorant on its special rare list, which they call the "Blue List." The Cormorants, sometimes numbering as many as 56 individuals, have been roosting nearly daily on the cypress trees at the Villa Venetia for more than 4 years now. It does appear that the Double-crested Cormorant may soon nest amongst the Great Blue Heron, in perhaps in a few more years, if the cypress trees have not been cut down by a political deicison of the five supervisors of the County of Los Angeles. There is very good precedent for herons and cormorants nesting together elsewhere in coastal California. The best example of this socially cooperative nesting colonies is at Morro Bay State Park in San Luis Obispo County. I am hopeful that the the state of California, by a consent decree, perhaps with a court order, if needed, will legally and forcibly stop the five supervisors of the County of Los Angeles. After all, these herons are protected by many state laws and federal laws, but interestingly, there are no county laws or city municipality laws or resolutions that protect herons, neither by a city council or the mayor of Los Angeles.