San Diego is one of the most biodiverse counties in the United States. Its mild, Mediterranean climate and varied topography create a number of distinct habitats, including beaches, salt marshes and lagoons, coastal sage scrub, grasslands, chaparral, oak woodlands, riparian, mixed conifer forests, freshwater marshes and meadows, vernal pools, and desert. This biodiversity extends to birds, with some people dubbing San Diego as one of America’s “Birdiest” counties. With all of this biodiversity, our county has been described by scientists as a conservation “hotspot” because of the large number of threatened and endangered species that reside here.
The current work of the conservation program includes three main projects: ReWild Mission Bay, adaptive management of coastal dune habitat (in protection of California Least Tern nesting sites and space for an endangered coastal dune plant, the Nuttall’s Lotus Lotus nuttallianus), and advocacy work. Other current conservation projects include restoration at Emory Cove (in South San Diego Bay), upland restoration work at the Kendall Frost Marsh Reserve/Northern Wildlife Preserve, and high tide monitoring counts of the endangered Light-footed Ridgway’s Rail (Rallus obsoletus, formerly Light-footed Clapper Rail) at multiple locations.
ReWild Mission BayReWild Mission Bay is a project of San Diego Audubon to enhance and restore up to 170 acres of estuarine habitat in the northeast corner of Mission Bay, with expanded opportunities for compatible community access. Restoring wetlands in Mission Bay has been an initiative of the City of San Diego for decades, and the first step is a multi-year feasibility study (currently underway). San Diego Audubon and our team of consultants will work with partners, stakeholders, and community members to develop at least three versions of a community-informed restoration plan by May of 2017. After that, it’s on to permitting and, ultimately, restoration! To learn more, check out rewildmissionbay.org.
California Least Terns (Sterna antillarum browni)
The California Least Tern is an endangered migratory shorebird that nests on the beach in San Diego (and all along the California coast) from April through September. The CA Least Tern needs mostly open, flat, sandy areas for nesting (although they do like a bit of cover from our native plants) and they depend on estuaries, lagoons, and nearshore open water for hunting small fish. Terns nest in colonies, which helps the small birds work together to defend nests and chicks from predators such as American Crows, gulls, raptors, cats, and snakes. San Diego County supports 60% of the breeding population of this bird at 12 sites including the Tijuana Estuary, the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, Mission Bay, and our coastal lagoons.
Fun Fact: California Least Terns defend their nesting colony against predators by flying up into the air, calling loudly, and pooping on their target!
SDAS partners with the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), City of San Diego, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) to manage and restore Least Tern nesting habitat at four main locations in Mission Bay: Mariner’s Point, North Fiesta Island, Stony Point, and FAA Island. This work involves citizen science and restoration projects. CA Least Tern conservation efforts can be broken down into three main volunteer programs: community restoration events (aka work parties), Conservation Team Leaders, and Ternwatchers (our volunteer predator monitoring effort).
1. Community Restoration Events: At these one-day work parties, held throughout the year but concentrated during our field season in January through April, volunteers help restore coastal dune habitat by removing invasive plants, replanting native plants, and conducting other land management activities (putting out protective structures for chicks, mending fences, etc.). No experience is required and these events are open to the public. This is a great way to get a taste for the work that we do to protect endangered species in Mission Bay!
2. Conservation Team Leaders (CTLs): CTLs are trained volunteers who lead other volunteers in the field at community restoration events and assist SDAS staff in conducting vegetation monitoring. CTLs participate in a single-day training in late January and commit to attending at least six restoration events during the spring season. At the events, CTLs help with set up, check in, leading small groups (5 – 20 people) in the field, and clean up. This is a great way to really dig into some serious conservation work and see the process of prepping the nesting sites throughout the season.
3. Ternwatchers: Ternwatchers is our volunteer predator-monitoring program at the CA Least Tern nesting sites in Mission Bay. These dedicated citizen scientists undergo a one-evening training session at the SDAS office, after which they conduct 2 – 4 hour monitoring shifts (according to their own schedule) to monitor the nesting sites for predators in an active effort to give Least Terns the best rates of survivability possible. Ternwatcher training sessions are held from mid-April through late May and the program concludes at the end of September, covering the entire duration of the nesting season. Volunteer commitments are flexible.
The SDAS Conservation Committee is an active group of volunteers who are involved in taking action on many local, state, or federal issues that affect our wildlife communities including wind energy, wetland protection, climate change, wastewater/stormwater issues, and urban habitat protection. Committee members write comment letters on environmental documents, speak at City Council hearings, provide advice and/or support on policy issues, and more. This group meets on the fourth Tuesday of the month from 6:30 – 8:30pm at the SDAS offices. The meetings are open to the public and are a great way to gain valuable insight into bigger-picture issues impacting our region.