It was by accident that Charlie Walker found himself standing across the street from one of the country's largest shopping centers, waiting to experience some of the wonders of Mother Nature.
"I just happened to stumble by here," Walker said, explaining that he had left his car to be serviced on Sepulveda Boulevard when he saw the sign advertising the 8 a.m. bird walk at Madrona Marsh in Torrance.
Walker was one of 30 or so men, women and children who gathered Saturday at the marsh to take the walk sponsored by the Friends of the Madrona Marsh, a local environmentalist group that for more than a decade has worked to preserve the 43-acre site from developers.
Although the issue of who should control the marsh--the city or a developer--is the subject of a cluster of pending lawsuits, the group nevertheless has carried on, conducting the walks for at least the last five years as condominiums have sprouted around the area's borders.
The group assembled at Madrona Avenue and Monterey Street, across from the Del Amo Fashion Center. Card tables were set up with bird and plant books strewn on top. Bumper stickers, buttons and pencils bearing the group's name were stacked next to a large glass donation jar. Some wore T-shirts with the words "Save Our Swamp" stenciled on the front in bold, green letters.
Bill Arrowsmith, a longtime friend of the marsh, thanked those who turned out, pointing out that places like Madrona Marsh are becoming endangered species around the Los Angeles area.
"I can count them on one hand," he said. "They are under siege."
Arrowsmith then apologized to the group, saying that summer is not the ideal season to actually view birds at the marsh because many who frequent the area are migratory and have already come and gone.
"We don't have our flashy birds today, but we do have our resident birds," he said.
A few minutes later, those assembled broke into smaller groups for tours. Another drawback quickly became evident as Shirley Turner, another marsh friend, explained that the city had not worked out rules on when visitors could actually stroll through the marsh. Hence, the tours had to be held outside, alongside a chain-link fence topped with curls of barbed wire.
"The next time I come I'll have to bring a stepladder so I can see a little better," joked Lou Prunaver, a retired firefighter who is a Redondo Beach planning commissioner.
There was another problem. Cars and trucks whooshed by on Madrona Avenue near the fence, often drowning out the words of Turner and others conducting tours. The whine of electric saws emanating from a nearby construction site added to the din.
"It's not something I'm particularly comfortable with on a bird walk, what with having all these vehicles right next to you," said Roger Heiman, who was accompanied by his wife and two small boys. "But I guess that is a big part of the marsh's value. A lot of people don't get out into the mountains to experience nature."
Similar views were voiced by others, including Esther Steele, who lives in Redondo Beach and brought her two grandsons to the walk. "Everybody thinks there is nothing here but a yucky old swamp, but it's a marvelous place," she said. Saturday marked at least the third time Steele had turned out for a bird walk at the marsh.
"I come by here all the time and I love it," said Lois McRay, who lives about a block away. "We need something more than concrete and people and condominiums. We need breathing space."
Despite the season, some birds were spotted. A great blue heron briefly drew binoculars skyward until it disappeared over the roof of a Ralph's supermarket. At one point, Turner spotted a crow in a eucalyptus tree. Pointing, she estimated the bird had landed at an angle equivalent to "about 2 o'clock." Ducks occasionally flew high overhead.
Others seemed just as interested in examining the marsh's flora. Turner spotted wild radishes and prickly lettuce growing just inside the fence. "What's interesting about this plant is that its leaves point north and south, and if you are lost in the woods, you can get your bearing from it."
For more than two hours, the groups walked south along the fence on Madrona Avenue and then east on Sepulveda Boulevard down to where several oil derricks pumped away. About 10 or so, some of the visitors began to leave. Others, such as Walker, took more time.
"It's amazing nature can survive here with all this pressure around it," he said. "Well, people, too. It's amazing we can survive with all this pressure."