Sunday, June 06, 2021

Illegal drone scares terns, which abandon 2,000 eggs on Bolsa Chica nesting island

Some 3,000 elegant tern eggs were recently abandoned on a nesting island at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach after a drone, prohibited in the area, crashed and scared off the would be parents.

At the beginning of June each year, the biggest nesting island in Huntington Beach’s Bolsa Chica wetlands is white with elegant terns overseeing their eggs as they begin to hatch in ground nests.

Until this year.

On May 13, two drones were flown illegally over the nesting area, with one crashing on the island. Fearing attack from a predator, the several thousand birds abandoned their nests, leaving behind some 2,000 eggs.

There will be no hatchlings this year on the sand-covered island, which is now littered with the egg shells.

Peter Knapp, who’s been monitoring endangered and threatened birds at the reserve for more than 20 years, had never before seen such a large-scale abandonment of eggs there, according to reserve manager Melissa Loebel.

Nick Molsberry, a warden for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said drones have grown into an ongoing problem at the wetlands – a problem not seen on other state lands in Orange County because they lack such highly visible nesting areas.

“It’s ironic,” he said. “Drone owners are attracted by the nesting colonies of birds, and then their actions destroy it.”

Off-leash dogs

Drone activity has increased with the popularity of the remote-controlled flying cameras, but it’s only part of the illegal activity disturbing the usually abundant bird life at the reserve, according to both Loebl and Molsberry.

With the pandemic driving more and more people to outdoor spaces, last year saw about 100,000 visitors to the Bolsa Chica reserve – up from about 60,000 the previous year, Loebl said.

That’s contributed not only to increased drone activity, but also to more dogs and bicycles on the trails – all of which are illegal. Another problem is the Brightwater development of multimillion-dollar homes on the hillside at the north end of the reserve overlooking the wetlands. While most residents respect the sensitive nature of the estuary, there are a few troublesome scofflaws that allow their dogs into the area.

“It’s residents that sometimes feel entitled, that feel they should be able to use the land as they like,” Molsberry said.

As with the drones, dogs mean fewer birds at the de factor avian sanctuary. At nearly 1,500 acres, the reserve is the largest saltwater marsh between Monterey Bay and the Tijuana River Estuary. Some 800 species of plants and animals live at or migrate to Bolsa Chica, 23 of which are endangered, threatened or species of special concern.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in dogs, particularly off-leash,” Loebl said. “That’s devastating for wildlife and this is prime nesting season. The dogs chase the birds and the birds abandon their nests.”


There are just three state Fish and Wildlife wardens for Orange County, which means that one is typically on-site at the Bolsa Chica wetlands for three to six hours over the course of a week. However, they respond to the reserve when there are complaints and Molsberry encourages the public to call 888-334-CALTIP (888-334-2258) when they see a dog or a drone at the wetlands.

“It gives me justification to spend more time here,” he said.

Molsberry said he writes up tickets for all violators, even though some apparently haven’t seen the signs prohibiting dogs, bikes and drones.

“This is an area where I don’t give warnings,” he said.

The May 13 drone that crashed on the tern island has not been claimed, although Molsberry said he plans to examine the memory card to try to determine the owner. The other May 13 drone crashed in a fenced nesting ground for the endangered least tern and while it flushed the birds from the area, they returned to their nest. That drone’s owner contacted the Department of Fish and Wildlife to get his drone back and was cited, Molsberry said.

Within two hours during Molsberry’s visit to the reserve Thursday, June 3, two drones appeared. One was operated from a reserve parking lot by an owner who was immediately cited, and who said he was unaware of the prohibition. Another was apparently being operated by someone at the nearby Bolsa Chica State Beach, which complicates enforcement because it can be difficult to track down owners at off-site locations.

Molsberry said his department is in the process of coordinating a program that will result in volunteers being posted at popular entry points to provide information and deter those with drones, dogs and bikes. And Loebl said she’s arranging a presentation for the Brightwater homeowners association.

“Most of the people obey the rules,” she said. “But we have people who just don’t care.”


  1. DRONES...THE NEXT FIASCO! A very good idea with the potential for many legitimate uses... already coming with lots of BAD RESULTS..

  2. Stop to think that a duck hunter, for example, who was 100 birds over the bag limit would very likely go to jail, lose their car, etc. The offense is considered criminal.

    Here we have thousands and thousands of birds killed by a puke flying a drone. I want to see people like this doing time in jail.

    1. How many thousands of migratory birds are killed seasonally - many protected species - killed in wind farm blades? Why is there no outrage over that? Green energy huh?

  3. Crashed drone earned clicks, but natural predation is more likely:

    "Every morning, Russell Greaves, of Huntington Beach, California, goes out to the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve behind his house to immerse himself in that slice of the natural world. He often sees coyotes, enough that he’s begun to recognize individuals in the area."