Mixed flocks of thousands of terns—plus their black skimmer cousins—were wheeling around and around in a screeching cacophony while performing their precision murmurations along both sides of the river channel. As a wildlife ecologist for almost 50 years—working throughout the United States—this was the most dazzling display of bird life I had ever seen.
Now for the back story—both the good and the bad components.
The setting for this avian spectacle was the “Southern Wildlife Preserve” section of the San Diego River Channel. A semi-professional wildlife photographer, I had been watching and photographing the interactions of 5,000 to 10,000 terns and 200 to 300 black skimmers for almost two weeks.
Every day, the same situation kept repeating itself. As the “cool dudes” of the river channel, the black skimmers—after a busy day of scooping their food—would all settle down together on a tidal flat. Aligning themselves in perfect formation, they all sat placidly with their heads facing directly west into the wind.
Black skimmers resting in tidal flat with bodies all facing into the west wind.
Then the chaos started. First a few terns—from among the thousands that were also perched in the river channel—arrived and landed right in the middle of the skimmers. Now the key thing to remember here is this: Behaviorally, terns are the antithesis of their larger kin. They simply can’t sit still—much less all face in the same direction.
|Terns “dropping into” the middle of a resting flock of black skimmers.|
As more and more clusters of terns descended into the middle of the skimmer flock, the tension grew increasingly palpable. Something was about to happen soon … and then it did. Suddenly, the tidal flat seemed to rise up in a mass of whirring wings and deafening screeches. After five minutes of aerial cartwheeling and cajoling, the mixed flock broke apart and settled back down onto the tidal flats, landing in their separate colonies—groups of calm-and-collected skimmers and always agitated terns. Peace again prevailed—at least for 10 minutes or so until the terns again started trouble.
Mass liftoff of terns and black skimmers from a Southern Wildlife Preserve tidal flat.
While the skimmers were—no doubt—perplexed by the antics of their tern cousins, for beach visitors—birders and otherwise—this was a sight not to be missed. It was just like watching a Discovery Channel soap opera, with the laid-back skimmers as the “tight-knit family” being constantly harassed and befuddled by their ne’re-do-well tern “in-laws”.
Thousands of terns lifting off together and wheeling around the river floodplain in wide and wild screeching circles.
Tight groups of hundreds of black skimmers also lifting off and circling the floodplain with the tern masses.
Ok—so that’s the good news. Now for the sad part of the story. Unless some changes are made along the Dog Beach—Southern Wildlife Preserve boundary, this “must-see” wildlife spectacle may not be with us much longer.
Ecologically, the San Diego River Channel is a critical component of the Pacific Flyway which stretches from Alaska to Patagonia. The birding is especially good during the months of November through May. This is when thousands upon thousands of wading birds, shorebirds, gulls, terns, and pelicans spend time feeding in the channel’s tidal flats and shallow waters.
According to Lesley Handa, bird surveyor par excellence, “We have a unique combination of terns (six species) here in San Diego that occurs nowhere else on the planet.” During certain years, San Diego supports a large majority of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) “near threatened” (NT) elegant terns that are endemic (restricted/native) to the pacific coast.
But here’s the problem: Unleashed dogs and wild birds just don’t mix well. This is because there’s no definitive demarcation between Dog Beach and the Southern Wildlife Preserve.
Everything is fine, as long as the unleashed dogs are restricted to the area officially designated as “Dog Beach”—which extends roughly 0.3 miles to the east of the high tide line. But the difficulty starts when the dogs venture into the prime bird habitat area—further to the east—along an area known as “Smiley Lagoon”.
Dogs being dogs, they love to chase anything that moves. Too often—starting at the western edge of Smiley Lagoon—this includes large flocks of feeding and resting birds. And—since birds are especially fragile when they are migrating—the presence of uncontrolled dogs in their essential feeding/resting habitat can be extremely detrimental.
So what’s the answer to this dog versus bird conundrum? Both types of animals have a right to occupy the west end—Dog Beach portion—of the San Diego River Channel: The dogs by virtue of a long-standing city beach designation, and the birds by virtue of migrating through San Diego County for thousands of years.
But a solution may well be close at hand. There are already a couple of signs in the river channel stating “Notice—Approaching Wildlife Preserve”. These signs are mounted on sturdy 4×4 posts designed to withstand severe tidal surges.
First, these existing signs should be moved to the western end of Smiley Lagoon. Then the wording on these signs should be changed to read “NOTICE—Entering Wildlife Preserve—No Dogs Allowed”.
Next, five or six more signs—also mounted on 4×4 posts—should be added. Finally, all the sign posts should be linked together by “sand-rope fencing”. This fencing would minimize visual/bird impacts while creating a definitive north-south boundary across the sandy (i.e., excluding the permanent water) part of the river channel.
Creating this low-key, sign-fence combination would be a classic “win-win situation” for everyone. The dogs would still have all of Dog Beach for romping and running. And the birds would have all of Smiley Lagoon—plus the tidal flats further east—for feeding and resting along their migration routes.
Finally—for years to come—river channel visitors, like me, would be able to continue enjoying the thrill of watching thousands of terns filling the skies with their non-stop acts of avian derring-do.
Photo credits: Copyright Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS (ALL)
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.