Birdwatchers Fear Fireworks' Impact

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In Marina del Rey Friday night, Los Angeles County will launch its annual fireworks show from a barge in the jetty. This year, some Westsiders will train their eyes on colonies of sea and shore birds on either side of the jetty - to see whether the show's harming the birds. KPCC's Molly Peterson has more.

Molly Peterson: Curly brown hair whips around Marcia Hanscom's face as she stands along the main channel in Marina Del Rey. Great Blue Herons live here, and last year, after Independence Day fireworks, she saw herons flying around, looking disoriented and displaced. She says other people saw it, too.

Marcia Hanscom: At least two birds that we know of were observed to have fallen from the rookery as soon as the first impact from the fireworks was heard. And one of those birds was found and brought to a wildlife rescue site and ended up dying.

Peterson: Hanscom also worries about other birds. Four years ago, she says buffle headed ducks scampered around confused after the Christmas pyrotechnics show. But the Fourth of July fireworks are shot from a barge, closer to the state-run Ballona Ecological Reserve, where Belding's sparrows nest.

They're an endangered species in California. Other threatened birds, brown pelicans and least terns, also breed and live around the jetty. At the north corner of the jetty, a fence surrounds a breeding colony for least terns. Still on their nests late this year, they circle when a helicopter hovers too close.

Hanscom: This is almost the worst location you could put the fireworks display in. It's right in the middle of where these important birds are nesting, including the endangered least tern, nesting eggs right now.

Peterson: A spokeswoman for L.A. County beaches and harbors says that Hanscom has spoken at public meetings, but that neither she nor anybody else has presented evidence of a problem. Hanscom says this year she's been working to change that.

Hanscom: There's an amazing amount of debris, including plastic, and wires, and all kinds of pieces of material that say "danger" on them. And I've brought those pieces of pollution in these baskets to the coastal commission to show them what the impacts are from fireworks.

Peterson: She's sending a letter to the California Coastal Commission urging its staff to take action. The commission's sparked fireworks over fireworks already; last month the board ordered Gualala, in Mendocino County, not to light up its skies this Independence Day after a U.S. Fish and Wildlife study found that cormorants abandoned their nests after last year's show.

But scientists who study birds say every colony is different. Julie Thayer is a marine biologist for a Northern California nonprofit research facility. She and her colleagues weighed in against the Gualala fireworks. Thayer says that birds' breeding rhythms can affect how severely they feel disturbances caused by people. So can other factors.

Julie Thayer: Smaller colonies may be more easily disturbed than larger colonies, The age or maturity of the colony, the environmental conditions and food availability. If birds are already physiologically stressed and operating near their maximum capacity while they're raising young, the disturbance effects may be more severe.

Peterson: Birds in L.A. Harbor, even endangered ones, live among condos, volleyball players, boats, and the distant rattle of LAX takeoffs. It's hardly pristine habitat. For about 10 years Thayer and fellow researchers have monitored birds at Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, a colony accustomed to constant tourists and boat traffic.

Thayer: But we've always observed disturbance when we have monitored during fireworks displays around Alcatraz.

Peterson: Thayer's organization doesn't study how Southern California birds respond to fireworks in the Marina – nobody has. State, federal, and conservation biologists all say it's impossible to tell whether fireworks inflict permanent harm without multi-year monitoring. That's exactly what Marcia Hanscom wants.

Hanscom: We need some scientists to come forward and help study them, and we certainly are going to be having people watching as we had some do last year.

Peterson: The state-run Ballona Ecological Reserve is conducting an ongoing study of Belding's sparrows; the manager there says that during next week's rounds, counters might be able to tell if fireworks knock birds off nests in the reserve. As for the other species, Marcia Hanscom says she's looking for volunteers to watch birds instead of fireworks this year.