Over 3,000 elegant terns fled their nesting grounds at California's Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve after an illegal drone crashed near the birds' wetland area

By Kelli Bender
June 09, 2021 03:48 PM
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Tern eggs abandoned
Credit: California Department of Fish and Wildlife/AP/Shutterstock

California's Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is suffering through one of its largest egg abandonments on record.

According to the Los Angeles Times, on May 12, two drones were illegally flying over the reserve in Huntington Beach when one of the devices crashed in the area's wetlands. Unfortunately, the drone landed near the nesting grounds of 3,000 elegant terns, causing the birds to flee and abandon their eggs - about 1,500 eggs altogether.

"We've never seen such devastation here," Melissa Loebl, an environmental scientist with the reserve, told the outlet. "This has been really hard for me as a manager."

While the eggs remain abandoned on the sandy areas of the reserve's wetlands, the birds' whereabouts are unknown, according to Loebl. The terns likely flew off because they saw the crashed drone as a threat.

"They're seen as predators," Loebl added. "Think of a bird. When I migrate 100 miles, I want a safe place to nest, forage, and breed, and they come here to do just that."

This a devastating end to an already eventful nesting season. The reserve's terns and other animals have had to contend with an influx of activity at the site, as more humans flocked to the outdoor space during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, sometimes bringing disruptive and prohibited bikes and dogs with them.

Reserve officials told the Los Angeles Times that drones are the protected area's most potentially devastating issue since, as this recent incident shows, these devices can easily disrupt animals in their natural habitats. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, drones are not permitted to fly over any California state wildlife reserves. Those who disobey this rule can face fines and charges for nest destruction and harassment of wildlife.

Elegant terns, which migrate to southern California in April from Central and South America, are not listed as an endangered species, but the seabird's known nesting sites are limited. Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is just one of four known elegant tern nesting grounds.

Conservationists are concerned that the reserve's recent drone crash may deter the elegant terns from returning to the site again to nest since the birds have abandon spots they viewed as dangerous and disruptive before.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is working with the Orange County district attorney's office to lawfully retrieve footage and information from the crashed drone in hopes of learning the identity of the device's operator.

"We will hopefully have some great footage of the user and what the drone did its flight path, and be able to articulate all the elements we need to fulfill the violation for this person, Officer Nick Molsberry of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife told the Los Angeles Times.