A generation of seabirds was wiped out by a drone at a reserve. Now, scientists fear for their future

It looked like there were living things in or around the eggs in the sand.

The seagulls that were supposed to be watching had already taken off because a drone had crashed into their nesting grounds on an island in the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve and scared them.

Melissa Loebl, an environmental scientist who runs the area in Huntington Beach, California, said, "We've never seen such destruction here." "This has been really hard for me as a manager."

The drone crash on May 12 scared away about 3,000 elegant terns, leaving behind 1,500 to 2,000 eggs that would not hatch. Scientists who work there can remember the biggest egg being left behind.

No one knows what happened to the birds because they are very sensitive to what they think are risks.

"We actually still don't know where they are," said Loebl.

It had been a year of problems at the reserve because of more tourists. The number of visitors doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic, which made a lot of people want to be outside. More people are riding bikes, which can damage sensitive areas by cutting trails off of established tracks. Also, more people are bringing their dogs, which can scare animals and leave behind waste. Both are not allowed in the area because they could scare birds away from their nests.

"They are seen as dangerous," Loebl said. "Think about a bird." "When I fly 100 miles, I need a safe place to nest, hunt, and have babies, and that's why they come here."

Drones, which are being flown over the area more and more often, have been the worst thing so far.

Officer Nick Molsberry of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said that drones are not allowed to fly over state wildlife areas because they could damage environments. He said that if that happens, the user could be charged with more crimes like destroying nests and bothering wildlife.

Loebl said that the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is one of the biggest and last coastal marshes left in Southern California. It is also one of the least threatened because 95% of its ecosystem has been lost. The area of more than 1,000 acres is important home for more than 800 species. 23 of those species have special status. The Western snowy plover is classed as threatened, and the California least tern and Ridgway's rail are both vulnerable.

"These are all birds we put a lot of time and energy into managing their habitat so they can have a successful year breeding," said Loebl.

Loebl said that in the fall, volunteers work to get North Tern Island and South Tern Island ready for birds to nest by managing the plants on them.

Thousands of terns come to the UK in April to breed. Some of these are beautiful terns that come from Central and South America. They stay until August, when they take off with their chicks.

Elegant terns are not considered dangerous or endangered, but Michael H. Horn, professor emeritus of biology at Cal State Fullerton, said that Bolsa Chica is one of only four known places where they can nest. The other three are in San Diego, the harbor in Los Angeles, and the Gulf of California in Mexico.

"We worry about them because there's so few nesting sites, not so much because of their numbers," he stated. "So that's a reason why if a nest site doesn't produce or fails, that's concerning."

Horn is waiting to hear if the birds have set up home in Mexico, which is usually where the biggest group is. There are now a lot of people in San Diego. They could have laid their eggs at the Los Angeles Harbor this year, but they decided not to. This makes the loss at Bolsa Chica even worse.

Horn said, "We have someone who watches them and other seabirds at the port, and he said the birds have flown by, maybe stayed for a short time, a few hours, or overnight, and then they've left." He added that the birds may decide not to settle in a place because of predators, problems with the food supply, or other problems.

Birders and photographers come from all over the area and further to see the beautiful terns and the other 300 kinds of birds that live in the reserve.

After the drone crash, officials are trying to strictly follow the law because of how badly the damage was. Molsberry is working with the Orange County district attorney's office to figure out how to legally get a search and get the drone's video footage and path records.

"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," he stated.

For eight years, Molsberry has worked for the police department. He said that before this spring, he had never seen a drone crash land in a reserve. The May 12 crash, on the other hand, was the second in 24 hours. A drone crashed in Bolsa Chica the day before, close to where the California least tern and the snowy plover come to nest. The birds took off, but they came back, "which was great," Loebl said. "Still sad, but great."

The person who flew the drone came forward to claim it and was given a ticket.

KABC-TV Channel 7 was asking Loebl and Molsberry about the drone problem on Thursday. Molsberry said that a man pulled into the parking lot and started flying a drone right above them, sending it straight toward another tern colony.

"I actually ended the interview, contacted the individual, identified myself and issued that person a citation right there on the spot," he told me. Television cameras caught yet another drone flying over the area, but the person who was controlling it couldn't be found.

That person Molsberry mentioned said he didn't know it was against the law to fly drones there because an FAA app showed the area as a "green zone," Loebl said.

"When it comes to flying drones in the airspace, the airspace does not belong to us," Molsberry admitted. He also said that the FAA may not list the reserve as a no-fly area, but he showed the man who was cited that there are signs all around Bolsa Chica that say drones can't be flown there.

Along with the volunteer groups Bolsa Chica Conservancy, Bolsa Chica Land Trust, and Amigos de Bolsa Chica, the reserve's management is creating a program that will have trained docents walk the land and teach people about the rules. Loebl said that the state also wants to work with the federal government to make sure that the reserve and other sensitive places have limited airspace.

For now, it's not clear what the long-term effects of leaving the nest will be. Horn said that this summer there will be about 4,500 fewer birds in the water near Bolsa Chica eating anchovies and sardines. Of course, that could bring in more animals that like to eat fish, like seals, sea lions, and other seagulls.

"The removal of one species might affect another species," said Loebl. "We have such rich biodiversity here."

Horn said it's possible that the elegant terns flew to other places to nest, and they might even do that again and lay more eggs before the summer is over.

This year, though, there won't be any pretty tern chicks at Bolsa Chica.

According to Molsberry, that's a whole generation of birds that haven't set up home. "It's just so abnormal not to see them there right now."