Migratory birds--thousands of them, representing up to 150 species--are already passing over the South Bay on their way south for the winter.
But when the birds look down on the area, they see mostly rooftops and pavement. Urbanization has destroyed many of the wetlands they need for food and shelter.
In all of the South Bay only four wetlands, plus some beach areas, still provide stopovers for migratory birds, biologists say, and some of those places face problems from urbanization in spite of preservation efforts.
But for now, especially in the next few months, the wetlands provide not only a haven for birds but are a gold mine for bird watchers. At least two environmentalist groups are organizing tours of the wetlands.
Wetlands are defined as areas that are periodically, seasonally or perennially flooded that also have specific types of vegetation, according to Lee Jones, consultant for an environmental research firm in Costa Mesa.
Wetlands fall into two categories: freshwater, flooded by rain or runoff, and salt-water, flooded by the ocean. Salt-water wetlands are sometimes called estuaries.
The California Department of Fish and Game has designated four areas in the South Bay as wetlands: Madrona Marsh in Torrance, Ballona wetlands between Playa del Rey and Marina del Rey, Willows Marsh in Gardena and Harbor Regional Park in Wilmington.
Some of the migratory birds in these wetlands will stay in the South Bay until the spring; others will merely make a "pit stop," continuing south in search of warmer climates. The Arctic tern, a species sometimes seen in the South Bay, migrates all the way from the Arctic Circle to South America, the longest known bird migration.
In the spring, migratory birds stop again on their way back north, where they reproduce and prepare to migrate again. "Between June and September, the younger birds learn to fly," said Earl Louppe, wildlife biologist of the Department of Fish and Game. It is also a time to build up strength for the trip south, he said.
In their journeys, birds rest and feed in wetlands, the only environment in which most species can find adequate food. "Little ponds will attract a few migrant ducks," but don't generally don't offer the insects and worms that most birds eat, Louppe said.
For both birds and nature lovers, however, wetlands have become scarce as development shrinks natural preserves, biologists say. "These areas are getting scarcer all the time, and no substitutes are being built," Louppe said.
About 90% of Los Angeles County's original wetlands have been destroyed, said Jones, the environmental consultant.
"The whole nation has a problem" protecting wetlands, said David Morafka, a biology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
In highly developed areas like the South Bay, the loss has been especially acute. "It's pretty much a wipeout . . . in the South Bay," said Carl Wilcox, a biologist associated with Friends of Newport Bay in Orange County.
But there are bright spots in the South Bay. After a citizens group called Friends of Madrona Marsh and others protested a developer's plan to reduce the that wetland from 54 acres to 10 and build a residential and commercial project, Torrance officials and the developer worked out an agreement. In exchange for approving a revised project, the city would be given 46 acres and would buy eight acres of the marsh. Terms of the deed are still being worked out.
Eventual Nature Park
The city eventually may turn Madrona Marsh into a nature park with an interpretative center, said Torrance Councilwoman Katy Geissert.
The Ballona (pronounced "buy-YO-nah") wetland is set for a major restoration. About 175 acres that are just "surviving" will be restored, as well as some former wetlands that had been allowed to dry up. With buffer zones, the restoration area totals 209 acres.
The National Audubon Society and Los Angeles County officials are handling the project. No starting date has been set for the project, which is expected to cost $10 million. Planners predict that almost 1 million people each year will visit their finished project, according to David Cowardin, staff planner of the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning.
Other wetlands, however, still face the ills of urbanization. At Harbor Lake in Harbor Regional Park, for example, development has wiped out many small animals, said Arnold Small, a biology instructor at nearby Los Angeles Harbor College. But Small, whose students use the lake as an outdoor lab, added that in spite of the pollution, fish and migratory birds are common.
Los Angeles city officials are drafting a management plan aimed at improving the 45-acre lake and adjacent wetland, said David Attaway, an environmental analyst for the city's Department of Recreation and Parks.