Each April, hundreds of stylish terns migrating from Central and South America nest within the sands of the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, one of many final remaining protected coastal wetlands in Southern California.
This yr, nonetheless, their refuge was no sanctuary. On Could 13, a drone crash-landed on their nesting floor, scaring off about 2,500 of the terns. Left behind have been about 1,500 eggs, none of which have been viable after they have been deserted.
“In my 20 years of working with wildlife and within the subject, I’ve by no means seen such devastation,” mentioned Melissa Loebl, an environmental scientist and supervisor of the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, which encompasses greater than 1,300 acres of mud flats, saltwater and freshwater marshes, dunes and different habitats in Huntington Seashore, Calif.
“My intestine is wrenching,” Ms. Loebl mentioned. “It’s terrible to see.”
Nicholas Molsberry, an officer with the California Division of Fish and Wildlife, mentioned nobody had come to say the drone within the three weeks because it crashed into the colony.
Officer Molsberry mentioned he was in search of a search warrant to permit him to evaluation the contents of the drone’s reminiscence card, which he hopes will permit him to determine the operator and the flight path the drone took that day.
If he can discover the particular person, he mentioned, he’ll search misdemeanor prison expenses referring to the useless destruction of eggs or nests, the harassment of wildlife and using a drone in a closed ecological reserve.
The elegant tern, a glossy seabird with a pointed orange invoice, is amongst 800 species that depend on the reserve as a crucial habitat, Ms. Loebl mentioned. Though the elegant tern just isn’t thought-about threatened or endangered, various different birds within the reserve are, together with the California least tern and the Ridgway’s rail, Ms. Loebl mentioned.
She mentioned it was not stunning that the elegant terns had deserted their eggs when the drone crashed on the sand the place they have been nesting.
“They have been responding to a menace,” Ms. Loebl mentioned. “That drone, to them, was an enormous predator. It got here crashing down and completely terrified them.”
Regardless of being a protected sanctuary, the reserve has regularly been disturbed by bikes, canine and drones, one other one in every of which crash-landed on the reserve on Could 11, in line with Ms. Loebl and Officer Molsberry.
“It’s all the time been a scorching spot for these violations,” Officer Molsberry mentioned. “I actually want we had extra officers to patrol.”
Ms. Loebl mentioned drones have been already prohibited within the reserve beneath California guidelines, however she needs the Federal Aviation Administration to problem a federal rule in opposition to working drones within the space.
“I’m actually hopeful we’re going to make optimistic change on account of one thing so horrible,” she mentioned.
Michael H. Horn, a professor emeritus of biology at California State College, Fullerton, mentioned that though the lack of 1,500 eggs won’t threaten the long-term well being of the elegant tern, which has a worldwide inhabitants of about 100,000 to 150,000, the drone crash was nonetheless troubling.
He mentioned the reserve was one in every of 4 necessary nesting websites for the elegant tern. Three are in Southern California, and one is within the Gulf of California in Mexico, he mentioned. Although the nesting areas are sometimes threatened by coyotes, peregrine falcons and different predators, drones shouldn’t be among the many hazards, he mentioned.
“We want extra safety,” he mentioned, “and I’m hoping the eye that is getting goes to assist us.”
He mentioned had lengthy anxious that the growing reputation of drones would ultimately pose a menace to nesting seabirds.
“I knew it was going to occur,” he mentioned. “I simply didn’t know when.”