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.”