Little chirps in praise of willows and floods

June 7, 2010 § 29 Comments

Photo: Don Sterba, reprinted by LA Times

[ERRATA: Photo of Least bell’s vireo was previously erroneously attributed to the LA Times. The photographer is Don Sterba, who also was the person to see and identify the bird. Apologies to Mr. Sterba for the error. The LA Times published his photo with credit, the oversight here was mine.]

Two pair of Least bell’s vireo, an endangered willow-loving bird, have set up camp in the vicinity of the Ballona Freshwater Marsh. Thanks to the Friends of Ballona Wetlands blog and the LA Times for getting the word out!  The Times piece also touches on the controversy associated with the freshwater marsh and Playa Vista development. I do disagree with the Times’ characterization of the drainage “ditch” Hughes dug. It may have become a drainage ditch, but early USGS maps clearly indicate that Centinela Creek flowed through the land that became Hughes’ airfield, and the landscape there would have been a floodplain and likely transitional freshwater or brackish marsh area, the “ditch” a functioning creek.  

Um, what ditch? Image: USGS, 1906

The Army Corps disconnected Centinela Creek from its historical outlet, tying it into Ballona Creek near where the 90 Freeway crosses today. What I don’t know is if others prior to the Army Corps had also shunted it away, leaving a historical channel or creating a new one for site drainage-something a wetland or floodplain would need if you were trying to create farmland. The point is lots of “ditches” and “drains” were creeks (Baldwin Hills oil field creeks, Ballona Creek), and these terms conveniently allow us to see them as unnatural, and therefore expendable. In that sense, we are fortunate that Playa Vista created a managed habitat area.

However, man-made, managed systems often lack something natural systems provide: dynamics. Least bell’s vireo are a particularly interesting species from the standpoint of river/creek system dynamics because they are most successful nesting in areas of young to mid-growth trees with thick shrubs – probably about the age class we are seeing at Playa Vista right now. Our natural cycle of El Niño storms generate floods that maintain that zone of youngish trees and herbaceous shrubs by periodically knocking them down in the floodplain. To quote the Point Reyes Bird Observatory:

Early to mid-successional riparian habitat is typically used for nesting by the Least Bell’s Vireo because it supports the dense shrub cover required for nest concealment as well as a structurally diverse canopy for foraging. Vegetation characteristics of riparian stands between five to ten years of age are most suitable for nesting Least Bell’s Vireo (Goldwasser 1981, Kus 1998, RECON 1989, Fish & Wildlife Service 1998).

In other words, floods are good for these little birds – and restoring the dynamic of flooding to our creek and wetland systems will help to support this population with the least effort on our end.  On the other hand, keeping people, dogs etc from disrupting the birds while maintaining a suitable age class of riparian habitat at the freshwater marsh will also likely encourage these vireos to be regular inhabitants. Let’s hope so.

My unsurprising take home message is: the more we restore natural processes through floodplain and creek protection & restoration and biotreatment approaches to stormwater management, the sooner these little guys and their beleaguered brethren the Southwestern willow flycatcher, will be off the endangered species list. And this is do-able. For all the potential the site had before Playa Vista, the development does demonstrate that even a dense urban zone with set aside habitat areas can support some important wildlife diversity – a lesson it’s time for us take upstream to creek sites next to existing urban areas.

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§ 29 Responses to Little chirps in praise of willows and floods

  • Jessica ~

    Glad you clarified about Centinela Creek. The location where these birds are nesting west of Lincoln is in a remnant of the historical Centinela Creek. We do not know if these birds were nesting there BEFORE Playa Vista ripped out the rest of this willow thicket, which was quite wild and lush and primordeal….the sort of habitat that Least Bell’s Vireo loves.

    Not only are dogs a problem – will Playa Vista stop allowing dogs walking nearby??? especially when these birds nest usually around three ft. or less above the ground. Will Playa Vista get rid of their manicured lawns and too much freshwater in the freshwater marsh so that Cowbirds and Grackles are not harassing these songbirds and their nests? Will PV give up on Phase 2 so more land could be dedicated to the recovery of this bird on the brink of extinction?

    Oh – and the Army Corps only diverted SOME of the flow of Centinela Creek. They could do nothing about the rains coming down the various canyons of the Westchester Bluffs and Del Rey Sand Dunes….and a remnant stream still exists flowing under Culver Blvd. to the sea. It’s one of my favorite parts of the Ballona Wetlands ecosystem.

  • patricia mcpherson says:

    It is unfortunate that Playa Capital LLC (Playa Vista) bulldozed the vireos habitat years ago. The remnant patch of willows- where one of the pairs is nesting- away from the freshwater marsh- is also an area that during the PV -EIR , scientist Rudy
    Mattoni had a bug trap that inadvertently found an ornate shrew. The type of shrew, I believe is rare or species of concern or endangered- regardless, one that we hope is still around. This species would not take to being flooded away. The PV catch basin’s (freshwater marsh) creation had been a concern regarding the little guys as are flooding scenarios planned in any “restoration” ideas.
    -By the way- where is the promised ‘culvert” that would prevent traffic strikes to the terrestrials that are supposed to be able to cross under Lincoln Blvd. ‘safely”?

  • Dan Cooper says:

    Re: “We do not know if these birds were nesting there BEFORE Playa Vista ripped out the rest of this willow thicket, which was quite wild and lush and primordeal….the sort of habitat that Least Bell’s Vireo loves.”

    There exists a persistent myth that the Playa Vista site supported Bell’s vireo, southwestern willow flycatcher, red-legged frog and other species that were eliminated to make way for development. Sometimes, this is tempered with the phrase “habitat for” species x,y or z.

    The fact of the matter is that the birdlife of the area remains one of the best-studied places in the state, if not the entire U.S. I can’t think of too many other places with a documented 100-plus-year history of ornithological record like that of Ballona. The willow habitat at the base of the Westchester/Playa del Rey bluffs were not only surveyed during the late 1930s (LACM/Von bloeker), but again in the late 1970s (LACM/Dock and Schreiber), 1990 (Ken Corey, now with USFWS), 1996 (Robb Hamilton and others), and so on. I personally have been monitoring birds there, under contract with a variety of clients, since 2003, and have collected observers’ submitted sightings that date back to the late 1960s from that area.

    The simple truth is that the area never supported Bell’s vireo, at least within the past 120 years. The area has had, for the past 100 years, a rather depauperate riparian avifauna, with many “common” species simply not breeding, occurring only as transients (e.g., downy woodpecker, black-headed grosbeak). They remain scarce today. Of course, it’s possible that in history, species like Bell’s vireo did nest there, maybe back when the Los Angeles River emptied out there, or prior to the rise of agriculture in the Los Angeles Basin. But to say that the vireo was there, or probably there – or even possibly there – until Playa Vista destroyed its habitat – without a shred of supporting evidence is simply irresponsible.

    The fact is that the species, like many riparian birds, is rare along the immediate coast in the Los Angeles area and north. Even historically, the big population centers were along the L.A. River, the San Gabriel River and their tributaries – not in coastal willow clumps. To continue to insist that this was NOT the case is not just unfounded, it diminishes the uniqueness of the Ballona area and the species that actually DO occur there.

    I am not defending Playa Vista’s actions. I could write at length about the loss of many species in the Ballona area (and have – see my website), but also about the colonization of the area by other species. And in this case, it’s about as clear-cut an example of “build it and they will come” as you can get. The species is rebounding (see the entry on Friends of Ballona Wetlands’ “Ballona Blog”) and would be expected to occur at new, appropriate areas as they are created, such as the novel habitat maintained at Playa Vista and adjacent areas since 2003.

    Of course, this explanation will not satisfy everyone, since there’s no way to prove a negative, as they say. Some people will insist that there were nesting white-tailed kites, nesting herons, this rare species and that rare species before Playa Vista came along – all without a shred of evidence (believe me, I’ve tried to shake some loose, since I’d love to be proven wrong!).

    But to let these comments go by without a response is simply encouraging bad information to “infect” what could be a reasonable debate about the future of Ballona, the impact of Playa Vista, etc. It also detracts from the public’s understanding of real issues that come up, some of which Ms. Hanscom referenced (dogs, grackles), and distracts attention from birds that are actually in jeopardy of blinking out in the area (American kestrel, western meadowlark, etc.), and those that already have (clapper rail, horned lark).

    Dan Cooper
    http://www.cooperecological.com/BallonaBirds.htm

  • Jessica Hall says:

    I appreciate the clarification of the site history, and the point about speculation vs. documentation. My point wasn’t to say that Bell’s vireo (or SW Willow Flycatcher) belong or don’t belong there, but to reflect on the potential for going beyond habitat mitigation and actually restoring waterways, including restoration of flood dynamics, which helps to maintain a diversity of habitats. I’m not surprised to learn that Bell’s vireo would more likely have populated the LA River, at one time a very dynamic system. I stand by flooding as an important function in both wetland and creek restoration – it’s not a panacea, it’s just part of the system. I have been hearing objections in the blogosphere and in person, to the wetlands restoration alternative that re-establishes flooding – this echoed in at least one comment here. At the wetlands we are faced with the presence of birds that as Dan says are “in jeopardy of blinking out” locally, for whom the grass and scrublands on site are one of the last local lifelines; at the same time, I can’t ignore that wetlands occur in unique locations and perform according to those site conditions. These don’t have to mutually exclusive goals if we put our energies towards creating both, including preventing further development in uplands, expanding smaller patches, and provide buffering from people. I would like to see a political campaign around that in conjunction with wetlands restoration planning that effectively accounts for impacts to upland species currently inhabiting the site.

  • Rex Frankel says:

    For many years we had wetland biologists who worked for Playa Vista putting out bogus studies showing that the Ballona wetlands were “dying” and without bulldozing funded by massive condo developments nearby, the wetlands would “naturally” disappear. These studies were critiqued by the biologists for the Coastal Commission and State departments of Fish and Game for using the wrong standards. And history has shown these studies were wrong. That’s why I disagree with Dan Cooper’s post in that every successive biology survey since the first UCLA 1979 survey has shown greater biodiversity and more wetland and other native habitats than the ones before. Each “best study” becomes obsolete as time goes by and the land restores itself and more critters discover this land. This is because landowner Playa Vista stopped plowing the land in the 1980’s. So while it is true that a developer-bulldozer restoration can bring in a ton of water and thereby attract lots of migratory birds, bringing gross numbers up, we who watch Ballona regularly have seen that leaving the land alone has also allowed the habitats to restore themselves and so much more of Ballona is wetlands now than there was in 1991–which is the baseline for all of Playa Vista’s restoration success studies; a study done after a 5-year drought. The 2006 map by the Department of Fish and Game shows dramatic wetland growth compared to the 1991 studies, and all this with no bulldozing!.

    http://ballonaplants.blogspot.com/2006/11/guide-to-native-plants-of-ballona-and.html

    What is important to note is that of the lands at Ballona now owned by the State, approximately half of it was historically wetland and half was upland. Despite lots of land alteration, this land is still in a 50-50 wetland to upland ratio, although some historical wetlands are now uplands and vice versa. The state agency doing the planning for this site originally proposed that 82% of their land be bulldozed and dredged to become open water wetlands at a cost of $209 million, far more than the state paid to buy the land (139 million). The point here is that Ballona is currently a biodiverse ecosystem, with three distinct habitats which have their own unique wildlife all of which are extremely rare in L.A., but the current State bias is that the wildlife in deep water wetlands are more important than the wildlife in the uplands. The locals who love the wetlands AND the uplands and wildflowers and hiking trails want a better plan that protects all the fragile and valuable natural assets at Ballona. We reject politicized biological studies written from a bias towards restoration with heavy equipment. I’m not saying that we should bring in some more water in the Ballona site, just that we shouldn’t let a bias towards one natural ecosystem type run the whole planning process.

  • Rex Frankel says:

    My last post featured a glitch. The corrected line is: I’m not saying that we should NOT bring in some more water in the Ballona site, just that we shouldn’t let a bias towards one natural ecosystem type run the whole planning process.

  • patricia mcpherson says:

    The development of a residential and commercial project -on top of a wetland or any habitat – is never part of a good equation for wetland or habitat protection.
    And, the residential and commercial development of Ballona continues to destroy habitat which is self evident.
    As stated in earlier comments, Ballona has had a history of “wildlife” studies that were less than accurate. Unfortunately, the old saying, “follow the money” makes alot of sense.
    The second commentor who discusses exactly what was and or is at Ballona is disturbing in that angry exactness that precludes error. I also think that-that exactness is uncommon to unbiased reports. Is there a Playa Capital LLC (Playa Vista owners) connection?
    Is it really a myth that herons nest in the historic Ballona? If it is then I would have to dismiss the numerous years of volunteers calling up State Fish & Game personnel and US Fish & Wildlife personnel to help stop the topping and pruning of trees along the bike path and fence line and marina areas where Blue Herons have been nesting year after year. I would have to obliterate, in my mind, the numerous human tree climbers that roosted near the nests to stop the chain saws until state or federal officials arrived and put a stop to the tree-cutting offenders during heron nest building and nesting. This would be true for the nesting Black-crowned Night Heron nesting as well.

    Furthermore, it has been stated in the bio and birding reports by the second commentor that certain birds were extirpated in the 70’s and 80’s (please correct me if I’m wrong about that). I did not live in the area during the 70’s through most of the 80’s yet I have photographs and/or personally witnessed
    birds, such as the short-eared owl and lark since the time frame cited as being extirpated. The short-eared owl came upon me in Area A, at dusk and hovered over me in the sea-breeze, just a few feet from my face….it was an experience that I will never forget.
    The burrowing owl- is stated, in the 2005 birding listing, as being only a migratory bird. I would hope that is not true. I have photos and video of the burrowing owl in numerous burrows along the Phase 2 area in the bluffs. Perhaps, it is true that Playa Capital’s grading of that bluff area has extirpated them. The Burrowing Owls have also been a part of Area B, living in burrows constructed into the raised driveways that criss-cross the wetland for use by SOCALGAS vehicles.

    As far as Belding’s Savannah Sparrows are concerned- which the commentor’s 2005 listing on the website, states as -confined to- the salt marsh along the waterways (again, please correct me if I’m wrong). But, my experience is and has been different-
    I have photographed the B. Sparrow in Area A and have witnessed numerous
    individuals present. But, if memory serves, I do recall the Friends of Ballona, also stating that the B. Sparrow was not in Area A. Because of this, I brought out a B. Sparrow expert from the Natural History Museum that was recommended and, with me, he sighted numerous B. Sparrows in Area A and also informed me of the nesting behavior that we were witnessing.
    I would imagine that the situation has only improved since the public has bought back this land, ensuring that it will not be destroyed by becoming the Playa Capital LLC envisioned- marina.
    I would hope that everyone would keep an open mind towards Ballona and its preservation. The preservation of more of Ballona is still possible and I would ask that anyone that cares about wildlife-actively promote the acquisition and preservation of this rare and endangered habitat that is Ballona.

  • Dan Cooper says:

    Jessica: I wasn’t taking issue with your post, but with commenters who perpetuate the myth that Playa Vista destroyed Bell’s vireo habitat. Exactly the opposite happened – they created it.

    Rex: I’m not wading into the “bulldozer debate” here, but as for an increase in “biodiversity”, are you conflating species richness and species diversity? They’re different things. As the planted habitat matures, new species will move in, but some will leave. And it’s the most range-restricted, sensitive ones that tend to leave, leading to more of the widespread ones moving in, thus depressing macro/global diversity – even as local species richness rises.

    So I’d argue that it’s not that “leaving it alone” is leading to more species appearing; rather, the opposite is occurring. At least for birds, mammals and reptiles/amphibians, the animals that are “appearing” are doing so in novel habitats such as freshwater marsh and riparian habitats, and are generally widespread, or at least increasing locally. The ones that are blinking out (shrike, jackrabbit) are doing so for a variety of reasons, including loss of open ground, and are generally declining all over southern California.

    As for the list of birds that occurred/occur at Ballona (Patricia Macpherson) – I don’t see any contradictions with what you write and my reports/papers, sorry. If you have new information to share, please publish/post it (or I’d be happy to – feel free to contact me offline: dan@cooperecological.com)

  • Rex Frankel says:

    Dan,
    I’m not certain of the distinction between species richness and diversity. I’m not a biologist. Maybe you can better explain your point here.

    My point is that at Ballona highly-politicized pseudo-biology has been used to weigh decisions justifying both development and destructive ways of restoring wetlands, all with the conclusion that less habitat should be protected. I saw it in Edith Read and Ted Winfield’s’s survey of the Marina Freeway. I saw it in Winfield’s and Michael Josselyn’s separate wetlands surveys for Ballona parcel A. I am aware you work or have worked for Edith and the Friends of Ballona Wetlands and Playa Vista. You may not be aware of how their faulty wetland studies worked: by claiming the wetlands were dying, they created a false reason to rush the approval of Playa Vista’s development project, as it would have provided a token amount of money to restore the wettest of the wetlands. This was the crux of Josselyn’s study. Winfield and Read’s studies of Parcel A and the Marina Freeway used the tougher (more pro-landowner) federal standard. The Coastal Commission uses a more lenient (pro-wetlands) standard that says if any one of three factors are present, the land is a protected wetland. The federal standard requires all three for the land to have any protection. Because the Coastal Commission is the ultimate decision-maker, the federal standard was irrelevant. But the propaganda that was spewed by the developer and their allies based on these studies was that very little was saveable, so we’d just better accept the developer’s deal or risk a disaster. As it turns out, those of us that held out for more eventually convinced the state to double the size of the developer’s preserve and the wetlands are doing just fine.

    There was more to this understating of wetland acreage that hardly anyone talks about. This was operating under the wetland mitigation bank rules that were all the rage in the early 1990’s. Until the 1998 Bolsa Chica court ruling, developers could destroy 25% of their Coastal Zone wetlands as long as they paid to restore or recreate wetlands elsewhere. Basically, if less of Ballona was considered a wetland, Playa Vista could develop more land. Because some of the land they intended to develop (Parcel A) was wetland, PV needed to fund restoration of the other 3/4ths of “official” wetlands to compensate, costing at least $25 million. The State Dept. of Fish and Game insisted there were 35 acres of wetlands in Parcel A, but Winfield and Joselyn’s studies claimed it was as low as 12 acres. The point here was to reduce the amount of “official” wetlands PV was going to destroy, and thereby reduce how much money PV would have to pay. Even though PV could not develop the other 3/4ths of the wetland acreage due to a lawsuit settlement, if their wetland destruction at Parcel A theoretically went down, by less of it being “considered” a wetland, PV’s financial obligation to restore all of the other 3/4ths would go down. This enabled PV to solicit funding from the L.A. and Long Beach Harbors (ie., the taxpayers) and Southern California Edison (the public again–ratepayers), all of which were destroying wetlands and were looking for places to spend mitigation money. The crux of this was that the harbors and SCE had no land near their projects left to restore. The problem with these mitigation banking schemes is that land at Ballona that was not developable due to it being wetland was being restored in exchange for destruction of other wetlands to the South, and this scheme was not actually creating a net increase in saved land, but it was resulting in an increase in developed land. So rigged wetland studies would have given PV more land to develop and cut their restoration costs.

    Thanks to the Bolsa Chica ruling all this insanity stopped and Playa Vista realized they could never get any development permits for their Coastal Zone land, as 100% of wetlands had to be saved. Now that the land is saved, we instead get politicized reports from the State that pit one type of rare habitat against another. Behind the scenes loom contractors who salivate at the prospect of a $200 million restoration project. So their studies try to justify the most expensive approach. So in response to your point, Dan, a $200 million restoration of Ballona will bring in much more water and with it much more total numbers of critters from the ocean, so a greater “richness” but at the expense of diversity and the loss of important upland mammals, reptiles, amphibians and insects. A much less damaging approach would protect all the habitats at less taxpayer expense. This approach is more likely to survive a court battle as restoration of an existing wetland is more legally justifiable than conversion of one protected habitat (upland) into another habitat (wetland). The Coastal Act treats habitat conversions as development, not a restoration, and subjects them to tighter and harsher scrutiny.

  • Holden Steady says:

    Rex, Patricia, et al.: You all suffer from a classic case of ideology trumping reality. I sincerely hope you reconsider your positions as, with all due respect, you’re at risk of embarrassing yourselves.

    Mr. (Dr.?) Cooper: You’re reasoned and humble responses are a model for the whole community.

  • […] Creek Freak, whose blog we recommend highly (see the blogroll to the right) has an excellent analysis by Jessica Hall on the Least Bell’s Vireos we blogged about Friday, and the L.A. Times covered Sunday. Her […]

  • Rex Frankel says:

    Mr. Steady,

    This is a debate about how political bias taints the scientific process. Everybody knows my background,, as an unpaid advocate for saving all the wildlife and habitats at Ballona. Since you refuse to reveal your name, your post adds nothing to this debate.

  • “Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty” Albert Einstein

    In other words, not just embracing the massive saltwater intrusion, extending the bay inward that some people want. In fact, the plans that the agencies have for Ballona will not help the riparian areas; the ecological reserve lands are too close to the ocean for that. The dredging would simply bring in more saltwater….

    Jessica’s ideas for uncovering streams are WONDERFUL for places up stream from here. Not in the Ballona Valley. There is HABITAT here. Uncover the streams where there is no habitat. The heavy equipment planned would just be a great jobs program for engineers – oh, and for consultants like Dan Cooper, who already has a contract working for those who want this, as well as for Playa Vista, who also wants it.

    As for whether or not the Least Bell’s Vireo likes 5-10 year habitat like that engineered and highly managed by Playa Vista? Why is it that one of the nests found is in the path of the historical Centinela Creek, with willow thicket habitat far older than 5-10 years.

    Landscape architects are being confused with biologists. And biologists who work for the proposers and advocates of engineering projects have to please those who sign their checks.

    As for Dan Cooper’s specific questions, his employer at Playa Vista has most of the records we based our Endangered Species Act lawsuit on. We read the observation records, not just the conclusions, of the developers’ consultants, and they observed Southwestern Willow Flycatchers on several occasions, at least twice which were DURING NESTING SEASON. I wonder why they have not shared this information with him. I know why we don’t share information with consultants who work for those who we may have to see in court….or at least in public hearings.

    We don’t know if these two endangered songbirds might have been present nesting. While Mr. Cooper may not have the records, this does not mean this area was well-studied. In fact, it was not. The records are spotty. This is why protocol surveys for these two endangered bird species were required by law. Unfortunately, before our lawsuit could go through its course, Playa Vista destroyed the evidence, by ripping out the really wonderful riparian habitat. Was it perfect? No, but it was perfect for the nesting potential for both of these species, according to the experts who advised us. Experts who the US Fish & Wildlife Service relies on.

  • Jonathan Coffin says:

    Save the Phase 2 development site of the Playa Vista floodplain for the Meadowlarks, the American Kestrels, the Loggerhead Shrikes and the Say’s Phoebes. I’m sure the American Osprey would have visited the site again too with a fish had Playa Vista not felt compelled this time around to mechanically pump the water off the site and send the tractor tiller in.

  • John Hodder says:

    “SOME PEOPLE WILL INSIST THAT THERE WERE NESTING WHITE-TAILED KITES, NESTING HERONS, THIS RARE SPECIES AND THAT RARE SPECIES BEFORE PLAYA VISTA CAME ALONG – ALL WITHOUT A SHRED OF EVIDENCE (BELIEVE ME, I’VE TRIED TO SHAKE SOME LOOSE, SINCE I’D LOVE TO BE PROVEN WRONG!).”

    -DAN COOPER

    Thank you for your specific quote, Mr. Cooper, from which it is impossible to back-track and equivocate, given your specific mention of species and their behaviors (nesting), for which you contend there is not “a shred of evidence”.

    I am so overcome with joy that you “love to be proven wrong”, since that is precisely what I am about to do. It is so wonderful to have your own, hand-written comments on all of this, Mr. Cooper, since I know from experience that newspaper reporters (and even transcript-takers) so frequently invent, misquote, or mistakenly record words we did not/do not, in fact, say ourselves.

    I empathize with such situations, as I have seen it happen so many times over the years to individuals both eminent and humble. But to have a man’s own, hand-typed comment posted to a website? Now, that is a rare, inviolable transcript of the man’s thoughts – the unretractable position he is taking with respect to his statement of what is TRUE and what is FALSE.

    How honorable a task it is to prove you wrong, Mr. Cooper – to prove that the positions you destroy other’s reputations with (emboldened by your inflated ego and inflated credentials) and present as TRUTH and FACT are, in fact, FALSE – and how happy you must be, since you “love to be proven wrong” so much!

    First, here are my photographs of the White-Tailed Kites (Elanus leucurus) nesting in the Ballona Wetlands on February 27, 2009, some time after which point their chicks were lost, and still later, their nesting tree bulldozed to the ground by Playa Vista during the construction of their stormwater retention basin’s (again, for the uninformed: “Freshwater Marsh’s”) outfall pipe into Ballona Creek. The first photo confirms the location of the trees in the Ballona Wetlands, near the original surcharge berm (now a flat area, with a culvert beneath). The second photograph confirms the identity of the species (White-Tailed Kite) as it hovers down towards its nest, and the third photograph shows the actual descent of one of the White-Tailed Kites into the nest – a 3-frame sequence without any frames omitted from the original roll of conventional 35mm film – a completely incontrovertible and unalterable photographic record. In the first photo of the nest descent sequence, you can see the right-hand shoulder of the other White-Tailed Kite visible in the upper left-hand corner of the leafy margin that obscures the nest beneath – illustrating the pair both fitting together within the nest. Far from being undocumented, these photos were developed (in the waning days of print photography) in March of 1999, and presented to the California Coastal Commission on Friday, January 14, 2000 (public hearing at the Four Points Sheraton Hotel in Santa Monica), at which time the nesting tree was under renewed threat from Playa Vista’s vegetative clearing and construction activities, described above:

    1-Eucalyptus-Myoporum-Tree-Stands-at-FWM-Outfall-Berm-Area-B-1999

    Second, here is my photograph of the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) nests in the Ballona Wetlands near the Ballona Sand Dunes, developed March 11, 1999 – you can see one of the Great Blue Herons actually standing upright in the nest at dusk, in the native Fremont’s Cottonwood tree (Populus fremontii). Next, in the following photograph, you can see a juvenile Great Blue Heron foraging in the Ballona Wetlands tidal creek, just a few hundred yards away from the nesting tree – this particular photograph having been developed on September 29, 1999 (all at Bel Air Camera in Westwood, California – the local UCLA camera store). My photographs of this and other nesting locations for the Great Blue Heron in the Ballona Wetlands were presented in an official capacity to local government regulatory bodies in the past – as recently as the mid-2000’s, in an effort to protect expanding heron nesting sites that colleagues of mine recently indicated you, Mr. Cooper, have been instrumental in removing protected status from (in other words, ladies and gentleman, this “birder” is co-author of a report to rebut and defeat a plan by the state of California to protect the Great Blue Heron nesting colonies off-site of but adjacent to the Ballona Wetlands in Marina del Rey – Mr. Cooper has put his talents to use to strip away the designation of these birds’ nests as “Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas”):

    http://www.argonautnewspaper.com/articles/2010/03/25/news_-_features/marina_del_rey/m1.txt

    So, Mr. Dan Cooper, you are proven wrong, as you requested – about BOTH species you chose to specifically mention. Do not think you could not be proven wrong about more, if life had no other purpose than to refute your false statements. Fortunately (given your plentiful and ever-burgeoning wellspring of falsehoods), life does have a higher purpose: creation of a careful, accurate, and data-rich history of the Ballona Wetlands, for the time during which I and my family members (having lived approximately 3,000 feet from the Ballona Wetlands for the past ~50 YEARS) am/are qualified to comment upon.

    BUT, MOST IMPORTANTLY, MR. COOPER, IT IS NOW PROVEN THAT YOU KNOW ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ABOUT THE COMPLETE ORNITHOLOGICAL RECORD – THE PRESENCE AND ABSENCE OF BIRD SPECIES – AT THE BALLONA WETLANDS, outside of what you have read in history books (which anyone else can read), and outside of what you have seen with your own eyes, which evidently, have served you very poorly in the comparatively brief time you have spent in our community’s wetlands (surveying, by your own words, since 2003 – a paltry 7 years).

    I hope you “loved” my deconstruction of your unscientific and inaccurate comments about the Ballona Wetlands, and “loved” being “proven wrong”, since you saw it fit to single-handedly defame the worth of this Los Angeles gem of natural history, without any forethought for the consequences of your statements & actions for the greater public good – or for those noble tasks the academic mind is entrusted with: accurate education of the masses, the preservation of truth, and the eschewal of categorical, all-encompassing statements for which one possesses insufficient data to declare “TRUTHFUL” and promulgate.

    *

    Oh, and I guess you’d better have your friends over at the ” ‘Friends’ of Ballona Wetlands” blog strike their equally arrogant and deprecatory entry exalting your (former) infallibility, Mr. Cooper (or is it, “Your Holiness”?), and, by process of elimination, their insult & libeling of Rex Frankel, Marcia Hanscom, and Patricia McPherson – it won’t look too good now calling them “fabricat[ors]” and guilty of “deliberate falsehoods”, will it – unless you plan to accuse me (and the birds in my photos) of the same?

    FROM THE “FRIENDS OF BALLONA WETLANDS” BLOG:

    “Pay special attention to the comment section, too, where local expert ornithologist Dan Cooper corrects some of the deliberate falsehoods that other ‘Ballona’ organization leaders like to fabricate about the history of the Ballona Valley, and the species they claim were found here.”

    Mr. Cooper, maybe you can bring a criminal or civil suit against birds at the Ballona Wetlands who have nested where you say they didn’t, don’t, shouldn’t, and have not in 120 years? What do you think the charges should be against them: Pantomime Libel? I’m sure with enough funding from Playa Vista, you could pull it off…

    Yes, this would all be hilarious, if it weren’t for the wildlife that has been ignored, denied, killed, bulldozed, built-over, buried, drown, and driven to local extinction (extirpation) by precisely this kind of on-going misinformation, Mr. Cooper.

    The next time you advocate filling a wetland to improve it, ripping a hole in it & filling it with water to make it better, just imagine what diversity of species great and small, common and rare, you might be killing across all the phyla of nature – all the plants and animals who might be living on that land – if you, a reputed ornithological expert, can’t even get your bird data right.

    Think About That,

    John Hodder
    Playa del Rey Resident, 30 years

    UCLA President’s Fellowship, 1999-2000
    (for research on the Ballona Wetlands)

    • Jessica Hall says:

      I think it is possible to present this information in a way that promotes collegial inquiry, and encourage all Ballonistas to present their data neutrally and respectfully of one another.

      • Jessica Hall says:

        I would like to add that none of the scientists and ecologists I’ve encountered have a desire or interest in extirpating native species from Ballona or elsewhere; if approached differently, they could be your allies.

  • patricia mcpherson says:

    RE: Ballona and Great Blue Herons- I was just reviewing the appraisal that was done on Ballona for its acquisition. The appraisal- as dates on the document are from Jan. 2003 on, so the actual information was researched probably in 2002 or ’01. The area’s acquisition is sanctioned due to some specifics which include-
    “The area is also a local nesting site of the great blue heron and habitat for at least ten species of reptile and amphibian species.”

  • John Hodder says:

    “SOME PEOPLE WILL INSIST THAT THERE WERE NESTING WHITE-TAILED KITES, NESTING HERONS, THIS RARE SPECIES AND THAT RARE SPECIES BEFORE PLAYA VISTA CAME ALONG – ALL WITHOUT A SHRED OF EVIDENCE (BELIEVE ME, I’VE TRIED TO SHAKE SOME LOOSE, SINCE I’D LOVE TO BE PROVEN WRONG!).”

    -DAN COOPER

    Thank you for your specific quote, Mr. Cooper, from which it is impossible to back-track and equivocate, given your specific mention of species and their behaviors (nesting), for which you contend there is not “a shred of evidence”.

    I am so overcome with joy that you “love to be proven wrong”, since that is precisely what I am about to do. It is so wonderful to have your own, hand-written comments on all of this, Mr. Cooper, since I know from experience that newspaper reporters (and even transcript-takers) so frequently invent, misquote, or mistakenly record words we did not/do not, in fact, say ourselves.

    I empathize with such situations, as I have seen it happen so many times over the years to individuals both eminent and humble. But to have a man’s own, hand-typed comment posted to a website? Now, that is a rare, inviolable transcript of the man’s thoughts – the unretractable position he is taking with respect to his statement of what is TRUE and what is FALSE.

    How honorable a task it is to prove you wrong, Mr. Cooper – to prove that the positions you destroy other’s reputations with (emboldened by your inflated ego and inflated credentials) and present as TRUTH and FACT are, in fact, FALSE – and how happy you must be, since you “love to be proven wrong” so much!

    First, here are my photographs of the White-Tailed Kites (Elanus leucurus) nesting in the Ballona Wetlands on February 27, 1999, some time after which point their chicks were lost, and still later, their nesting tree bulldozed to the ground by Playa Vista during the construction of their stormwater retention basin’s (again, for the uninformed: “Freshwater Marsh’s”) outfall pipe into Ballona Creek. The first photo confirms the location of the trees in the Ballona Wetlands, near the original surcharge berm (now a flat area, with a culvert beneath). The second photograph confirms the identity of the species (White-Tailed Kite) as it hovers down towards its nest, and the third photograph shows the actual descent of one of the White-Tailed Kites into the nest – a 3-frame sequence without any frames omitted from the original roll of conventional 35mm film – a completely incontrovertible and unalterable photographic record. In the first photo of the nest descent sequence, you can see the right-hand shoulder of the other White-Tailed Kite visible in the upper left-hand corner of the leafy margin that obscures the nest beneath – illustrating the pair both fitting together within the nest. Far from being undocumented, these photos were developed (in the waning days of print photography) in March of 1999, and presented to the California Coastal Commission on Friday, January 14, 2000 (public hearing at the Four Points Sheraton Hotel in Santa Monica), at which time the nesting tree was under renewed threat from Playa Vista’s vegetative clearing and construction activities, described above:

    1-Eucalyptus-Myoporum-Tree-Stands-at-FWM-Outfall-Berm-Area-B-1999

    Second, here is my photograph of the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) nests in the Ballona Wetlands near the Ballona Sand Dunes, developed March 11, 1999 – you can see one of the Great Blue Herons actually standing upright in the nest at dusk, in the native Fremont’s Cottonwood tree (Populus fremontii). Next, in the following photograph, you can see a juvenile Great Blue Heron foraging in the Ballona Wetlands tidal creek, just a few hundred yards away from the nesting tree – this particular photograph having been developed on September 29, 1999 (all at Bel Air Camera in Westwood, California – the local UCLA camera store). My photographs of this and other nesting locations for the Great Blue Heron in the Ballona Wetlands were presented in an official capacity to local government regulatory bodies in the past – as recently as the mid-2000’s, in an effort to protect expanding heron nesting sites that colleagues of mine recently indicated you, Mr. Cooper, have been instrumental in removing protected status from (in other words, ladies and gentleman, this “birder” is co-author of a report to rebut and defeat a plan by the state of California to protect the Great Blue Heron nesting colonies off-site of but adjacent to the Ballona Wetlands in Marina del Rey – Mr. Cooper has put his talents to use to strip away the designation of these birds’ nests as “Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas”):

    http://www.argonautnewspaper.com/articles/2010/03/25/news_-_features/marina_del_rey/m1.txt

    So, Mr. Dan Cooper, you are proven wrong, as you requested – about BOTH species you chose to specifically mention. Do not think you could not be proven wrong about more, if life had no other purpose than to refute your false statements. Fortunately (given your plentiful and ever-burgeoning wellspring of falsehoods), life does have a higher purpose: creation of a careful, accurate, and data-rich history of the Ballona Wetlands, for the time during which I and my family members (having lived approximately 3,000 feet from the Ballona Wetlands for the past ~50 YEARS) am/are qualified to comment upon.

    BUT, MOST IMPORTANTLY, MR. COOPER, IT IS NOW PROVEN THAT YOU KNOW ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ABOUT THE COMPLETE ORNITHOLOGICAL RECORD – THE PRESENCE AND ABSENCE OF BIRD SPECIES – AT THE BALLONA WETLANDS, outside of what you have read in history books (which anyone else can read), and outside of what you have seen with your own eyes, which evidently, have served you very poorly in the comparatively brief time you have spent in our community’s wetlands (surveying, by your own words, since 2003 – a paltry 7 years).

    I hope you “loved” my deconstruction of your unscientific and inaccurate comments about the Ballona Wetlands, and “loved” being “proven wrong”, since you saw it fit to single-handedly defame the worth of this Los Angeles gem of natural history, without any forethought for the consequences of your statements & actions for the greater public good – or for those noble tasks the academic mind is entrusted with: accurate education of the masses, the preservation of truth, and the eschewal of categorical, all-encompassing statements for which one possesses insufficient data to declare “TRUTHFUL” and promulgate.

    *

    Oh, and I guess you’d better have your friends over at the ” ‘Friends’ of Ballona Wetlands” blog strike their equally arrogant and deprecatory entry exalting your (former) infallibility, Mr. Cooper (or is it, “Your Holiness”?), and, by process of elimination, their insult & libeling of Rex Frankel, Marcia Hanscom, and Patricia McPherson – it won’t look too good now calling them “fabricat[ors]” and guilty of “deliberate falsehoods”, will it – unless you plan to accuse me (and the birds in my photos) of the same?

    FROM THE “FRIENDS OF BALLONA WETLANDS” BLOG:

    “Pay special attention to the comment section, too, where local expert ornithologist Dan Cooper corrects some of the deliberate falsehoods that other ‘Ballona’ organization leaders like to fabricate about the history of the Ballona Valley, and the species they claim were found here.”

    Mr. Cooper, maybe you can bring a criminal or civil suit against birds at the Ballona Wetlands who have nested where you say they didn’t, don’t, shouldn’t, and have not in 120 years? What do you think the charges should be against them: Pantomime Libel? I’m sure with enough funding from Playa Vista, you could pull it off…

    Yes, this would all be hilarious, if it weren’t for the wildlife that has been ignored, denied, killed, bulldozed, built-over, buried, drown, and driven to local extinction (extirpation) by precisely this kind of on-going misinformation, Mr. Cooper.

    The next time you advocate filling a wetland to improve it, ripping a hole in it & filling it with water to make it better, just imagine what diversity of species great and small, common and rare, you might be killing across all the phyla of nature – all the plants and animals who might be living on that land – if you, a reputed ornithological expert, can’t even get your bird data right.

    Think About That,

    John Hodder
    Playa del Rey Resident, 30 years

    UCLA President’s Fellowship, 1999-2000
    (for research on the Ballona Wetlands)

  • John Hodder says:

    What the local environmental community has been trying to figure-out is why the post I made to this website disproving Dan Cooper’s specific contentions written here about the lack of nesting avifauna (White-Tailed Kite & Great Blue Heron) at the Ballona Wetlands prior to Playa Vista (in 1999) has been CENSORED (“held for moderation” since early Saturday morning, 6-12-2010).

    It would appear the moderators of this board do not believe in FREE SPEECH, nor in the TRUTH, which is the only thing that can protect both sensitive and endangered species at the Ballona Wetlands now, and in the future.

    My accurate, photographically-documented history of the Ballona Wetlands’ mischaracterized past rightfully opens skepticism about the accuracy of a “present” now characterized by those same people – like Mr. Cooper – who are, currently, mischaracterizing the Ballona Wetlands’ past with respect to the presence and absence of bird species – including Least Bell’s Vireo (Vireo bellii pusillus).

    A critical and sarcastic tone towards those who call themselves “experts” – and, thereby, presume to take away the rights of sensitive wildlife species to live in their indigenous habitat at the Ballona Wetlands – is not only warranted, but justified, given that local extinction (extirpation) of our community’s defenseless and VOICELESS native wildlife is what is at issue here.

    With Due Concern,

    John David Hodder

    UCLA President’s Fellow, 1999-2000
    Director, California Wetlands Research, 2002-2007
    Resident within ~3,000 feet of the Ballona Wetlands for 30 years

    • Jessica Hall says:

      I actually walk away for my computer, sometimes for days at a time. I am just seeing these comments this morning. Joe probably felt that I should be the one to approve them due to your admittedly sarcastic tone, as this comment is tied to my original post.

    • Joe Linton says:

      @John – If you’re going to write long comments with lots of capitalization, then it may take us time to review them before approving. We generally encourage comments, as long as they’re not obscene, or inflammatory.

      To the extent that we’re given grief (ie: receive excessively long and accusatory comments) when we cover Ballona issues, then we’ll be discouraged from writing about these issues that you clearly care about. I personally would like to see these issues aired… but am disheartened by the tired, unhelpful, combative comment stream that they generate.

  • Thank you for sharing this vital evidence with all in the community, the most accurate information is warranted especially at this crucial time of restoration planning.

    I understand we all need to walk away from our computers. Though in the hours following the posting of John’s photos to Flickr on Saturday morning, the photo view counts went up to well over 70 in a few hours. The photo link was only sent to you, John, and a couple others, so this is a bit odd to have so much visitor traffic (far more than my other Ballona photos)- unless our wetlands are more popular on Flickr than one would think…

    -E

  • Dan Cooper says:

    John Hodder –

    I don’t see a kite nest in your photo, sorry.

    I’m not saying it’s not there, just that it’s not shown in your photo. Kites roost in trees, often in pairs, throughout the fall and winter at Ballona, sometimes accompanied by young-of-the-year. Maybe you have notes on the birds’ behavior, courtship displays, nest material, etc., with dates, that would corroborate your claim. The only nesting of white-tailed kite at Ballona that I know about was in 2002 near Ballona Cr./UCLA boathouse, in pines, which appears to have been a one-time event (cited in my publications).

    As for herons nesting, I guess you misunderstood me – I was referring to herons nesting at *Playa Vista*, not at Ballona/Marina del Rey in general. A well-known nesting tree was located in a large cottonwood at the western end of the Ballona Wetlands during the 1990s, which you documented well in your photos. Today, they nest in several locations in Marina del Rey, but prior to 2000, that cottonwood at the wetlands (far from Playa Vista) was the only site I’m aware of.

    Dan Cooper

  • There are so many gaps and flaws in the data and conclusions here by Dan Cooper.

    Perhaps he does not know about the *nesting* Great Blue Herons that Bruce Robertson of the Ballona Valley Preservation League documented for several years — they nested in parts of Area B which were planned to be bulldozed (they began, but were stopped) and built on by Playa Vista before our coalition worked to preserve far more than the 230 acres west of Lincoln Blvd. which the group(s) Cooper is affiliated expressed satisfaction with.

    These *nesting* Herons were spooked away from the area which WAS owned by Playa Vista and is now known as the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve by the bulldozing attempt, which was criticized heavily by the California Coastal Commission.

    These *nesting* Herons starred in two award-winning documentary films – one by Bruce Robertson and one by Dr. Sheila Laffey – and they are part of what helped save the Ballona Wetlands the first time – finally getting some land into public ownership in 2003.

    • Holden Steady says:

      Well that’s convincing! They starred in a movie!

      Apologies in advance for getting all meta, but I just can’t help myself:

      The comments here really captures the central flaw in the baby boomer approach to environmentalism, and one I can only hope my generation can avoid – emotions and idealism seems to overwhelm all capacity to think logically and argue convincingly.

      One can only hope that a cool calm scientific approach, mixed with good common sense and pragmatism, will eventually become the vanguard, and the blind idealism, with all its bitterness and resentment and obsession with the past, will go far far away, perhaps to hang out it with its ideological twin – the Tea Baggers.

  • small size says:

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