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Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Local Heronry Offers Amazing Bird-Watching Opportunity

BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN

Every spring, four species of egrets return to their Malibu heronry, or nesting ground, to raise their young. This heronry isn’t located in a remote and inaccessible niche of the Santa Monica Mountains. Instead, it’s out in the open in the middle of the popular Malibu Country Mart shopping center.
One man has developed a unique relationship with the magnificent birds that have made the location their home and thinks that Malibuites will share his passion for the residents of the heronry and want the site acknowledged as an interspecies laboratory.
Hartmut Walter, a professor at UCLA and longtime local resident, has studied the Malibu egret colony for years. “It’s unique,” Walter told the Malibu Surfside News, pointing to the trees that comprise the heronry. “In most nature reserves and parks, the birds are shy. Here it's so protected and sheltered, and it's a twenty-first century shopping center. There’s a Fisker parked over there, and the egrets are pooping on it.”
Great egrets, snowy egrets, black-crowned night herons and a pair of great blue herons are nesting in the ficus and coral trees this year.
Walter points out a black-crowned night heron peeking out of the foliage in the smaller of two ficus trees. “They’re normally very shy,” he says.
“They’re called night herons because they are active at night. It's unusual to see them near people.”
“Egrets prefer to breed in colonies, even if that means they have to fly farther,” Walter says.
“There were more than 20 nests last year.”
All four species coexist, although squabbles and minor disagreements are not uncommon. The birds have an astonishing range of vocalizations, which can sound to the casual observer like the sound track of a “Star Wars” movie.
Walter says, “They are quite smart, these birds. The green heron is famous for using tools. It uses a small stick to catch fish, angling like a human fisherman. The great egret is a formidable bird. It has a beak like a spear for catching fish.”
The snowy and great egrets, which have beautiful white breeding plumage, were nearly hunted to extinction in the nineteenth century during a fashion craze for feathered hats and other accessories.
Their dwindling numbers prompted the formation of the Audubon Society, which spearheaded the drive to enact legislative protection for the birds in time to save the species.
Walter says that the Malibu birds appear to be thriving. They are often observed in creeks, pools and the four local lagoons, or along the beach hunting for small fish in the tide pools, are equally adept at hunting for mice, insects and small reptiles in fields and vacant land.
“The birds find food in a half mile radius,” Walter says, adding that he has observed the birds foraging in Legacy Park and further up Malibu Creek, during the Malibu Lagoon construction project.
“The main point is that this is a unique opportunity to see birds that are quite rare in the rest of the world,” Walter says. “You don’t have to travel. It's right here. Here, the birds don't disturb the businesses in any way.”
Walter says that when he is there with a camera, or binoculars, observing and documenting the birds, he is always asked about the birds by passersby in the vicinity.
While The News was interviewing Walter, several people approached with questions, or just to share the excitement of seeing the large birds up close. The great blue heron has a wingspan of more than six feet. The great egret is slightly smaller, with a wingspan of five feet. Both species can be observed swooping in and out of their nests, or sparring with their neighbors.
The snowy egret and black-crowed night heron are smaller, but sport exotic, long feathers. The night heron has a vivid orange eye and long streamer-like feathers growing from its head. The snowy egret has over-sized yellow feet, and a crest of translucent downy feathers that it grows only during breeding season.
“Most people will spend 15 minutes talking, asking questions,” Walter says. “This place is a jewel. It’s not easy to see a night heron, yet here they are.”
Walter’s enthusiasm for egrets is infectious and he thinks there would be widespread interest in the colony if it could be made accessible to a wider audience. He says his dream is to have a live webcam that could enable birdwatchers around the world to share the excitement of observing the Malibu egret colony. He would also like to see some kind of information signage installed about the birds.
He hopes to enlist the support of the shopping center, which is already noted for its emphasis on cutting-edge environmental awareness and practice. The possibility of involving local government might also result in additional environmental attention.
“People get excited by nature,” Walter says. “They may not know what they are looking at, but they want to know, they see this and it amazes them.”
Walter holds a PhD in zoology from the University of Bonn, Germany, with minors in botany and chemistry. His research interests include conservation science and biogeography, and he has written extensively about bird-related environmental issues.
He has developed fieldwork programs for his students that involve visits to the Santa Monica Mountains and the Channel Islands and has been observing the Malibu Lagoon and Civic Center area birds since the 1970s.

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