December 1, 2000

Love Birds Save Trees

Environment: Trimming limbs on a developer's property wrongly displace courting herons, officials say
Gina Piccalo
Special To The Times

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 wetlands 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 the nest or eggs of any bird."

Screenwriter Robin Hudson has watched the birds 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."

Robert Jan 'Roy' van de Hoek
Los Angeles, California
The Los Angeles Times article, Love Birds Save Trees, accompanied by two photographs, is about a Great Blue Heron colony (heronry) in Marina Del Rey, California. The article was written by Gina Piccalo, as a "Special To The Times." The subtitle, or by-line reads as follows: "Environment: Trimming limbs on a developer's property would wrongly displace courting herons, officials say." The investigative journalist, Gina Piccalo, visited the heron nesting colony on November 30, 2006. She interviewed me, as well as the developer's biased scientist, the developer himself, residents of the apartment complex that may be torn down, and environmental activists and leaders of Los Angeles County. She also interviewed a state wildlife biologist from the California Department of Fish and Game, as well as a lieutenant warden with that state agency. All in all, it was an interesting but very long day. The developer and his salaried biologist lost their momentum that day because citizen activists and a citizen scientist successfully used state laws to protect the heron colony and its nests. The very next day, December 1, 2000, the article about this stand-off was printed in the Los Angeles Times, in its "Metro" section on page 2. The two photographs were taken by Carolyn Cole, an official photographer for the Los Angeles Times.

The colony of the Great Blue Heron at Marina del Rey had a very good year in the 2001 nesting season, as a total of 56 individuals were fledged. Although nest construction, nest refurbishment, and courting began in November 2000, the first eggs were laid in January 2001. Nesting behavior by the male heron begins much earlier with the construction and redesign of his nest each autumn. And during November with the nest completed, the male heron can advertise himself with the hope of attracting a suitable mate.

The news article can also be interpreted symbolically as about two people (Roy van de Hoek and Marcia Hanscom), who are "love birds" trying to save these magnificent birds and their nesting habitat, i.e. the Greater Ballona Wetlands Estuarine Ecosystem (GBWEE). Could the article be as much about Marcia and Roy, as it is about two herons ? We first met in 1999, but we have been courting and in a relationship for 7 years now. Marcia is a naturalist writer and the executive director of Wetlands Action Network. I am a biologist, geographer, wetland scientist, and a park superintendent of two public parks under the County of Los Angeles' Department of Parks and Recreation. Thus, the title of the article, Love Birds Save Trees may have a double meaning ?

There may even be a "triple" meaning because recently a newlywed couple was evicted by Greg Schem from the apartment. 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 Gre 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 six Monterey Cypress Trees grace the Marina in a most beautiful way. The 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, and nearly 50 foot height, so that the Great Blue Heron males would find them opportune 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 an investment to plant these trees, both economically and spiritually, and to remove or prune them would be a terrible blow to the cypress trees and the herons.

The article, Love Birds Save Trees, written by Gina Piccalo, as a "special" to the Los Angeles Times was beautifully graced with a photograph (Carolyn Cole, LA Times Photographer) of a pair of birds called the Great Blue Heron. The two herons were standing on a strong limb of the Cypress Tree, high up near the top, surrounded by the thick foliage of the cypress. The male had his neck and head upstretched toward the sky as the female looked on at him. When the male heron is in this posture he makes a call that sounds like a soft cooing gurgle. He sounds his call as part of the neck and head stretch. A few days after mating, the female heron lays her eggs, and approximately 30 days later, the eggs hatch, and now the hard work of catching enough food for the fast-growing offspring begins by both parents.

There is a second photograph by Carolyn Cole, which accompanies the article in the Los Angeles Times. This photograph shows two employees of the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) on a balcony of the third floor apartment of Robin Hudson. They are at eye-level, looking directly at the the courting pair of Great Blue Heron, which are in the adjoining photograph of the article. A picture certainly tells a thousand words. The patch on the uniform of the warden, Lieutenant Kent Smirl, shows clearly up-close, with the words "Resources Agency" and a picture of a Brown Grizzly Bear and a map of the state of California. The patch is blue and yellow. The photograph shows Scott Harris, CDFG wildlife biologist, with his binoculars in his hand, looking at the nearby herons, but not needing to use his binoculars because he is so close to the herons. The text in the caption below the photograph reads as follows: "Two great blue herons work on a nest in a cypress tree in Marina del Rey, top. State Fish and Game Patrol Lt. Kent W. Smirl, above left, and wildlife biologist Scott Harris study the nesting birds. Smirl ruled that tree trimming by a developer would be illegal harassment of the herons and a misdemeanor violation of state code."

The writer been studying the Great Blue Heron at this breeding location by the Villa Venetia Apartments for more than three years now. It is the only nesting (breeding) colony of Great Blue Heron in the entire Ballona Wetlands Ecosystem and Marina del Rey Yacht Harbor. The Marina harbor was once part of the extensive Ballona Wetlands, which County Supervisor Burton Chace repeadedly referred to as a "mosquito-infested swamp", when actually it was a paradise, sanctuary, home, and habitat for thousands of birds, marine life, native plants, butterflies, fish, mammals, and other wildlife. Fortunately, the Great Blue Heron is resilient and they were able to return to reclaim this part 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 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 17 individuals, have been roosting nearly daily on the cypress trees at the Villa Venetia for nearly 2 years. It does appear that the Double-crested Cormorant may nest amongst the Great Blue Heron next year, or perhaps in a few years, if the cypress trees have not been cut down as authorized and supported by the five supervisors of the County of Los Angeles. There is 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.