July 01, 2018

Photo Essay: Endangered Species In a Disappearing Habitat, Under Naval Protection

"It's like this pretty much every day," Rick said as he was driving me back to my car at the Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach.

I'd just taken one of the monthly free tours of the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge (which more or less provides a necessary buffer zone for the Navy's weapons storage)—and in just three hours, the weather had gone from gloomy and dark to sunny and bright, breaking through the typical June gloom that we were just riding out the tail-end of.

Then again, I've come to appreciate the cool gloom of spring and early summer. After all, I'm a girl for all seasons.

And that meant the plants in the refuge's native garden were still blooming.

The California buckwheat had just begun to turn from white and light pink to rust.

The air smelled of flowers and not the fragrance of the sea.

Each of the plantings in the garden serves a purpose, whether to attract butterflies, birds, and other pollinators...

...or to provide habitat for cottontail bunnies, ground squirrels, and other rodents that the nearby birds of prey hunt for food.

Of course many of the plants there have culinary and medicinal uses dating back to the indigenous tribes that inhabited these tidal wetlands... the California coffeeberry (Frangula californica), an antidote to poison oak.

And then, of course, there's the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia), whose fleeting blossoms are beautiful...

...and whose paddles (nopales) and fruit are delicious.

But although the garden is full of California natives, they're not exactly representative of the wetlands themselves. For that, you have to cross the train tracks of the abandoned right of way (once used to transport weapons from the ships at Anaheim landing, since replaced by trucks).

There, you'll find where Bolsa Avenue meets Signal Drive—inside the gates of the Navy base, though Bolsa Ave. used to provide a main thoroughfare to get directly from what's now Long Beach, through Seal Beach and into the rest of Orange County. That is, until the PCH was built, and the military took over much of our coastline and open spaces.

Now, Bolsa Ave. is the location of a box culvert that allows the seawater tides to come in from the Pacific Ocean and fill the mudflats on either side of the road, turning them into ponds.

The tidal pulses create a whirlpooling effect—and, over the course of six hours or so, raise the water levels dramatically.

This, in turn, creates some excitement among the marine life living in the mud...

...just a scoop of which reveals striped shore crabs, ghost shrimp, worms, bugs, and practically infinite invertebrates.

That gives the fish plenty to snack on, which in turn provides plenty of seafood for shorebirds like the great blue heron and snowy egret (which "fishes" with its yellow feet in the mud) to dine on.

When the tide ebbed later in the day, the shirebirds would have plenty more to fish for.

It's kind of a quiet time of year for migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway, which meant the native species—the terns, stilts, rails, killdeer, turkey vultures, and Belding's savannah sparrows—were the stars of the show. And surprisingly, we even saw one family of Canadian Geese (three juveniles, not yet fledged) crossing the street—probably in search of some freshwater somewhere, since they don't favor seawater.

While our ancient hunter-and-gatherer ancestors would come down to this salt marsh in the Anaheim Bay estuary to fish, the European settlers who drove them out brought with them an entirely different approach:  agriculture. They began to farm the shoreline (which was practically an artificial island of centuries of discarded shells and fish bones) by bringing in dirt and then planting crops.

The Navy changed all that with its weapons station—starting near the end of World War II, it was where weapons were not only stored but also manufactured, assembled, and tested. In fact, an artificial island that was used for rocket testing has since been covered in sand for use as a breeding sanctuary for the endangered California least tern (Sternula antillarum browni). (That doesn't, however, mean that all the contamination is gone.)

Since the official declaration of the area as a national refuge in 1972, the native pickleweed (Salicornia virginica) has been allowed to grow back, providing necessary habitat for the endangered western pygmy blue (Brephidium exilis), one of the smallest butterflies in the world (along with the El Segundo blue butterfly, Euphilotes battoides allyni).

So, what actually endangers creatures like these? Sure, there's predation—but no amount of red foxes could eat all the least terns without something threatening them first. (In the 1990s, all the red foxes in the area were trapped and killed to protect the birds, eradicating one species for the sake of two, I guess.) But the much bigger problem is loss of habitat from human encroachment.

The Navy wasn't the first to destroy the salt marshes in this area, but it certainly contributed to it. Fortunately, over the years it's allowed a lot of dirt that doesn't belong there to be hauled out. And it being a military base that's not exactly accessible to the public, it can prevent further damage and development from happening.

Because protecting us also means protecting our resources

Related Posts:
Basking in the Gloom at Bolsa Chica Wetlands
Damage Control
Photo Essay: Invasive Plants, Parasitic Birds, and Giant Stinging Nettle at Prado Wetlands

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