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Saving The Birds At Seal Beach Wildlife Refuge

Christopher Foy |
December 27, 2011 | 12:22 a.m. PST


Clapper rails bursting from their boxes, onto Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge. Courtesy Photo by Edgar Espinoza, Navy Environmental Division, Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station.
Clapper rails bursting from their boxes, onto Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge. Courtesy Photo by Edgar Espinoza, Navy Environmental Division, Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station.
“Now before we head out there,” cautioned Kirk Gilligan, the local manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as he pointed to an observation deck surrounded by the incoming high tides of the saltwater marsh. “We heard one of our endangered species underneath the deck this morning [so] don’t stomp around…and just walk really gently.”

Ada Bosnjak, a recently retired chemical engineer who lives in nearby Los Alamitos, has volunteered at the refuge since 2006. But one recent Saturday morning was the first time Bosnjak caught a glimpse of the elusive, and endangered, light-footed clapper rail.

The tan, round-headed bird with a two-to-three inch beak, whose numbers once dwindled to a few mating pairs nationwide, is one of 92 members of the endangered species within the refuge’s boundaries, per Gilligan’s tally last week. Something must be working.

Inside of the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, weapon caches and military installations are protected by miles of barbed wire fences, moats, perimeter patrols, and armed guards. But so is the 911-acre wildlife refuge, roughly one-fifth of the entire 5,000-acre property owned by the U.S. Navy; it is reserved specifically for two species of endangered birds, the light-footed clapper rail and the California least tern.

Since their designation as endangered by the federal government in the 1980s, and because of efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and many volunteers in Seal Beach, both bird populations stabilized.

The naval weapons station is strictly off limits to the general public, with few exceptions. On the last Saturday of each month, excluding December, a select number of Californians can tour the wetlands – assuming they pass a background check. Reservation requests must be made three days in advance to allow for the screening, and guests must be led at all times by USFWS staff and volunteers.

Just outside the entry gate to the naval weapons station, an armed guard dressed in pixelated camouflage comprised of differing shades of blue and grey, the Navy’s working uniform, kindly directs me to the parking lot in front of her. Beneath a wavering American flag nearby is a sobering World War II memorial dedicated to more than 3,000 submariners who gave their lives.

Dozens of golden plaques surrounded by a massive torpedo commemorate each of the dead. I watched as the guard pointed the last bunch of stragglers for the wildlife refuge’s morning tour towards a large van, covered in colorful paintings of local birds.

President Theodore Roosevelt established the first national wildlife refuge in 1903, responding to the damage caused by the popularity of a women’s fashion item -- feathered hats. Roosevelt’s protection of a five-mile stretch of land in the mangroves of southern Florida, dubbed Pelican Island for its brown pelicans, was the earliest example of the federal government setting aside territory solely for the propagation of threatened wildlife.

Fifty-five other reservations dedicated to the protection of wild birds sit undeveloped, even to this day, following Roosevelt’s leadership. Spanning across the United States and its offshore territories, there are 494 other wildlife refuges. The nation’s wildlife refuges amass more than 100 million acres -- hallowed ground where threatened and endangered species exist undisturbed. Well, not entirely.

Kirk Gilligan, the refuge’s manager and the only paid, full-time employee of the state, said he attempts to prevent local predators from ravaging the nests of the clapper rail and least tern. Explaining why is easy for Gilligan, pointing to an incident in 1999 that ended up swiftly inspiring the public’s support.

Ragtag gangs of hungry common crows feasted on what he called almost an entire generation of least terns, eggs laid in the boundaries of a ground fence that prevents marauding foxes and coyotes. In 1999, the survival of the few remaining least tern eggs was credited to two retired Seal Beach women who fought against the crows. Keeping watch during the final days of the nesting season, day and night, the volunteers shook cans full of rocks to scare away any of the approaching carnivorous black birds.

The USFWS has one other employee at the refuge in Seal Beach: Mark Beatty, a part-time maintenance worker in his mid-40s who seems to know more about the local plant life than anyone else -- except, on occasion, his mother Shirley.

“Some of our volunteers have been here for more than twenty years,” said Gilligan as he acknowledged Shirley. “So there’s a lot of knowledge around here,” he said, addressing the 18-person group of visitors on Saturday.

Hazel, 6, wore a white and orange sundress with a pair of binoculars around her neck. She could not contain her excitement when Gilligan asked if there were any questions – her hand shot up in the air.

“Are there foxes here?” asked Hazel.

“We have the native grey fox and the red fox,” replied Gilligan. He glanced at the two stuffed foxes to his side. “But we also have coyotes too…look back there you and you can see one,” he said, pointing at a large coyote against the back wall. “Stuffed, of course.” Almost every visitor chuckled at Hazel’s amazed “whoa” as she caught a glimpse of the newest contender for her favorite animal.

As Mark led the first group of about ten tourists through a garden of native plants, explaining that the battered seashells strewn all over are centuries-old remnants of the Gabrielino Indians, Shirley tagged along. So as not to interrupt her son as he explained the different medicinal purposes of southern California’s native plants and flowers, Shirley occasionally finished Mark’s sentences.

“We did put in a sprinkler system for our front meadow, but [the Navy is] pretty funny about water here,” said Shirley. “The first water lines that we laid out were eaten by the critters…so we do a lot of hand watering now."
Though she prefers foxes, and now possibly coyotes, Hazel raised her hand each time she caught sight of a rabbit in the garden. Mark nodded with a smile.

“Do you see the bunny?” asked Hazel. The rabbit stared back at the group with its ears pinned back, blinking at all the attention.

“We have all sorts of cottontails, jackrabbits…even squirrels and gophers,” Beatty responded. He watched Hazel’s excitement at the prospect of seeing more critters and continued.

“We have all sorts of bird activity out here right now as well,” said Beatty. “Lots of the migrating birds…just listen to those little songbirds.”

After a five-minute stroll down towards the wetlands, the group paused by USFWS volunteer John Fitch as he stood facing the coast. He peered through a spotting scope fixed to the ground with a tripod.

“These things here were going through a feeding frenzy as the tide was coming in earlier,” said Fitch, speaking softly. He described watching cormorants and a red-breasted merganser, a type of carnivorous duck, chase schools of fish as a cowboy corrals his cattle, just moments before.

Before entering the naval weapons station, I first met Fitch in the main parking lot beside the submariners’ memorial. He pointed out two soaring red-tailed hawks as they chased a couple of crows away from the nearby trees. During the battle between loud “caw-caws” and the sound of wings frantically flapping, Fitch noticed a small bird. It was swooping in close to the crows, just beyond the barbed wire fences of the main entrance.

“Look at the kestrel helping out his friends over there,” exclaimed Fitch. The kestrel is a miniature falcon that grows no larger than eight inches in length. But the kestrel, also called the sparrow hawk, is a deadly bird of prey to small mammals and insects.

There is a break in the barbed wire, where the concertina wire around the massive Naval installation becomes a cement wall. Surrounding the Sea Breeze Village sits a condominium complex for military families. Other employees of the naval weapons station commute from the nearby town of Los Alamitos, which houses a training base for California’s National Guard and a substantial airfield.

A spectacular fireworks display, put on by guardsman at the Los Alamitos base, draws thousands from nearby communities to its crowded fields on the Fourth of July.

During the rest of the year, Blackhawk helicopters hover above the cities, running training missions. Sometimes residents can catch a glimpse of an F/A-18 Hornet just after a pilot hits the fighter jet’s afterburners; the sonic boom alone draws many out of their homes. The armed forces are very much an active part of Seal Beach and Los Alamitos, and have been for decades.

The official Web site for the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station explains that the installation “supports the provisioning of missiles, torpedoes, and other ordnance to a majority of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.” The naval weapons station’s stated purpose has not changed much since it was first used in 1944, where rearming and repairing the Allied fleet based in Seal Beach was an important strategic victory during World War II.

Fears of an attack by Japanese submarines trolling the depths of the Pacific led naval personnel based in Seal Beach to install anti-submarine nets along the California coast.

“Walk softly stranger, walk softly, for you tread on hallowed ground,” reads a stone tablet at the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station’s memorial for American submariners lost at sea during World War II. As a waving flag hovers above the inscribed names of more than 3,000 sailors described on a nearby golden tablet as “eternally on patrol,” a guard waves in a pickup truck headed towards the largest Navy base in California.

The weapons station is as much a home to thousands of explosive rounds and munitions, packed in their nests of concrete and thick soil, as it is to still endangered light-footed clapper rail and the California least tern.

Along the walking path beside the Pacific-fed estuary, six-year-old Hazel straddles coyote footprints far ahead of Gilligan, following the path of one of her favorite animals in hopes of finding it. If not for Roosevelt’s creation of the national wildlife refuge system in the early twentieth century, these coyote prints would likely have been trampled over by boot prints long ago.

And if not for the daily efforts of the USFWS team led by Kirk Gilligan and volunteers like Jack Fitch, Mark and Shirley Beatty, and Ada Bonsnjak, chances are that the clapper rail and the least tern would be just another memory lodged in the fossil record, extinct to all but historians and biologists.

Reach contributor Christopher Foy here.

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