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New Site Sought for Least Tern Breeding Ground

June 17, 1993|KIM KOWSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PLAYA DEL REY — An experimental breeding colony for the California least tern at south Dockweiler State Beach can be shut down, but county officials have six months to help biologists find an alternative site for the endangered birds, coastal authorities ruled last week.

The California Coastal Commission's decision came as a disappointment to biologist Patricia Herron Baird, who set up the breeding ground last year and didn't want to give up the project until county officials had found her an alternative site.

But she said the six-month deadline gives her hope that she will be able to prepare another potential breeding colony for the migrating birds by next spring, when they start looking for nesting areas.

"It won't look as good as the one we have now, but it will be a start," said Baird, a Cal State Long Beach professor.

The Coastal Commission's decision grants permission to the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors to remove a six-foot fence surrounding the breeding colony in Playa del Rey.

The grounds, a rectangular, nearly three-acre site between a bike path and the surf at Vista del Mar and Sandpiper Street, was set up by Baird last year as part of a project funded by the Environmental Protection Agency to save the endangered birds from extinction.

So far, it has yet to attract a breeding colony, but it has sparked opposition from the Federal Aviation Administration, which fears migrating birds could present a hazard to low-flying aircraft at nearby Los Angeles International Airport.

Researchers estimate there are about 1,800 pairs of least terns nesting at two dozen sites between San Francisco Bay and the Mexican border. The project would have set up Los Angeles County's second breeding colony for the birds.

A successful, existing colony has been in place at north Dockweiler since 1980, but biologists fear the site is becoming crowded and say a second site is needed.

In 1991, Baird received permission from the Department of Beaches and Harbors to set up the secondary colony less than a mile from the existing one. Last year, she fenced off a 2.75-acre area, set up decoys resembling least terns and began playing recordings of the birds' mating call to help establish a colony.

Baird was forced to remove the equipment and decoys, however, when officials with the FAA expressed concern that the birds could pose a threat to jets taking off at the nearby Los Angeles International Airport.

Federal authorities feared the wispy, diminutive birds would get sucked into the engine of a low-flying airplane, causing an engine malfunction or even a crash. They also expressed concern about the possibility of a collision between a jet and a hawk, a natural predator of the least tern.

Baird, who called such concerns "malarkey," was locked out of the colony by county officials in late March while the issue remained unresolved.

In the following months, Baird said she tried to identify new sites for the secondary colony. But she said county officials rejected her suggestions, proposing instead "ludicrous alternatives" such as a lot next to an old building without a roof and some private land in Malibu that "looked great except that terns have never been seen there in the spring."

Baird believes the Department of Beaches and Harbors raised concerns about safety with aviation authorities because it "does not want this least tern colony anywhere."

"It's like the ugly stepmother who says you can go to the ball but before you go, you have to wash all the clothes, weed the garden and clean the stables," Baird said. "They say they are behind us but they are not supporting us in the least."

James Fawcett, planning chief for the county department, disagrees.

"That's not true at all. We're very happy to have a secondary least tern colony. . . . I'm hopeful that we can work it out."

Fawcett said the county was caught in the middle of a dispute between the state fish and wildlife officials and federal aviation authorities. He said his department is eager to help Baird establish another colony, but that county officials lack the technical expertise to identify viable nesting sites.

"We have no intention of making her life difficult," Fawcett said. "We're relying on her and fish and wildlife services to tell us where there is a good least tern nesting site. Then we'll try to determine the feasibility of that site."

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