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Return of the terns, 73 years later

Endangered California least terns nest on Malibu Beach for first time since 1940, are quickly driven away by crows.

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Posted: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 6:15 am

A flock of rare birds briefly made national news when it returned to breed on Malibu Beach last week, but quickly left after crows preyed on their eggs. 

For 73 years, the only two breeding colonies of endangered California least terns in Los Angeles County were in Venice Beach and the Port of Los Angeles. That changed last week when the Los Angeles Audubon Society confirmed the presence of seven one-egg least tern nests on Malibu Beach, between Malibu Lagoon and the ocean. 

California State Parks immediately issued a press release announcing the return of breeding terns to Malibu for the first time in 73 years, and the story was picked up by local, state and national media. 

The diminutive “least terns,” so named because they are the smallest tern species, frequently inhabit the lagoon during the winter, says Suzanne Goode, a senior environmental scientist with California State Parks. But seeing them breed was something different. 

“They feed in the lagoon and in the ocean, fly around, it’s just that they’ve never laid any eggs here since 1940,” Goode said. “The basic problem this bird has is it likes to be on the sandy beach, and that’s where all the people like to be.” 

The migratory bird possesses a distinctive black head, with gray and white feathers. It ranges from San Francisco to Mexico in the winter. Its population has increased from 600 in 1973 to 7,100 pairs in 2005, according to the state department of fish and wildlife. 

It’s unclear why the birds came to Malibu to breed after all this time, although Goode said there are theories. The birds appear to come from the colony in Venice. 

“They [could have experienced] heavy predation at Venice,” Goode said. “Number two, we fenced in a bigger enclosure this time [intended for snowy plovers, another bird]... another factor might be that the topography is much more open now [after the Malibu Lagoon Restoration Project], they like places with not a lot of shrubs around.” 

An attack of crows since the beginning of the week has since caused the budding breeders to depart. In order for the flock to fight off an attack from a flock of crows, Goode estimated there would need to be more breeding terns. 

“We had 58 birds here [last week], but only seven nests,” Goode said. “There were only seven nests to defend. Obviously if they haven’t laid their nests yet there’s nothing for them to defend, so they need to have about 30-35 nests before they can effectively fight off the crows.” 

The flock has since returned to Venice. But Goode remains hopeful it will come back. 

“We’re going to leave the fence up here for a couple more weeks to see what happens, fence left up for snowy plover,” Goode said. “... They could decide to come back here.” 

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  • Wiliardi Kotram posted at 12:25 am on Wed, Jul 1, 2015.

    wiliardikotram Posts: 342

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  • Matt Horns posted at 6:52 am on Thu, Jun 13, 2013.

    Matt Horns Posts: 739

    Everything AL spins here is ignorant gobbledygook. We actual professional envirnomentalists take a much different spin on this issue than other fake environmentalists like AL. Evreryone that has worked with helping least terrn populations in Malibu knows that the largest least tern nesting sites in So Cal are on the beaches at Vandenberg Airforce Base at point Conception in Santa Barbara County (because humans and their dogs are banned from their beaches). These birds apparently found Malibu Lagoon a great location to visit in their northward migration to their nesting colony. The amount of "shrubs" on Surfrider Beach had no influence on their arrival. The least terns stopped by simply because they had an abundant source of food in the new west channels for the first time in 73 years.

    AL weakly attempts to buy spin on the facts presented in this article that presents few facts . AL, spin on these facts!

  • Andy Lyon posted at 8:45 am on Wed, Jun 12, 2013.

    Andy Lyon Posts: 65

    Goode said. "... another factor might be that the topography is much more open now [after the Malibu Lagoon Restoration Project], they like places with not a lot of shrubs around.”

    well....that is the most accurate statement yet !!
    no shrubs ! no NADA !!!