On industrial Terminal Island, amid boat salvage yards, fish factories and container cargo terminals, officials from the Port of Los Angeles are scurrying to prepare for the annual arrival of what they consider an unwelcome visitor: the California least tern.
Workmen are maneuvering heavy equipment to grade and compact land that, until a few weeks ago, was used as storage ground for mounds of petroleum coke. Soon a roadway will be abandoned, a chain-link fence will go up and a thin layer of white sand will be spread to make the area attractive to the tiny shore birds that come here each April to mate.
The least tern, classified as endangered by both the state and federal governments, has been nesting at Terminal Island since it was called Rattlesnake Island, long before the Los Angeles Harbor was dredged from the mud flats of San Pedro Bay.
Now the port is required to maintain a 15-acre love nest for the sea birds--on some of the choicest industrial waterfront property in Southern California.
The Terminal Island nesting site is one of only two in Los Angeles County (the other is at Venice Beach) and one of just six in Los Angeles and Orange counties combined. Thus wildlife specialists consider it crucial to the survival of the California least tern.
Port officials consider it a pain in the neck.
"It's a continual thorn in our side," complained Vern Hall, chief harbor engineer. "We can't bother them between mid-April to mid-October every year. Any activity around that site has to be curtailed."
And with port property currently renting at $48,000 an acre, the least tern site could bring in $718,000 a year to the Harbor Department, according to Mark Richter, assistant director of property management. "That's real money," he said. "You could keep the birds."
Counters Jack Fancher, biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: "The least tern has been doing its thing for 10,000 years. The port's been doing its thing for 100. The terns have been crowded out. . . . Its (nesting area is) all gone, except for a crummy little 15 acres."
This year, the tug between port progress and the terns is especially evident. Harbor Department officials are trying to move the birds by preparing a new nesting site--the one where the petroleum coke piles used to be--so that they can develop the old one, probably into a cargo terminal.
Their plan, which has been approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service, is to maintain both sites this season and wean the birds from the old site to the new, if the birds will make the move. If not, the old nesting area will be gradually shifted north over a period of three years, until it meets the new one.
There are, of course, no promises that the birds will go where the Harbor Department wants them to. Port officials cannot shoo the terns away from the old site--or from anywhere else, for that matter. That is considered harassment. The old and new sites must be equally attractive to the birds, although decoys will be added to the new site to give it an advantage.
"We're taking a gamble," admitted Ralph Appy, the Harbor Department biologist who oversees the least tern project. "They might not like our nest site and go nest somewhere else, and according to our agreement (with government wildlife agencies) we have to protect them if they nest someplace else."
That agreement was thrust upon the Harbor Department in 1978, after the port began construction of an automobile storage yard on the terns' nesting ground, in the middle of the mating season. Outraged environmentalists blocked the project until the port agreed to preserve the birds' habitat.
Fancher says the department's treatment of the terns has improved considerably since then, mostly because of the port's "recognition that the least tern existed. . . . Before that, they were trying to deny it, (to say), 'Get it out of here. We don't want it.' "
There are about 1,250 pairs of least terns remaining in Southern California, more than double the number in the mid-1970s but still far fewer than the thousands that inhabited the California coast at the turn of the century.
Easily recognized by its white body, black-tipped wings and black-capped head, the least tern, which grows to about 9 inches in length, is the smallest of the tern family. Biologists say they do not know precisely where the terns go each winter--South America or Mexico is their best guess.
They do know, however, that the birds return each spring; Fancher says they are "more predictable than the swallows of Capistrano" in that regard. The terns like to nest on flat, sparsely vegetated sandy ground near still, shallow water, where they can dive for anchovies, smelt and other small fish. They lay their eggs in small depressions in the sand; their nests, therefore, are highly vulnerable to predators, particularly foxes, feral cats and crows.
At Terminal Island, crows have been a serious problem for the past two years and destroyed all of the tern nests last year. This year, Fancher said, the Fish and Wildlife Service is "hoping to deal with the handful of offending birds," possibly by trapping or shooting them.
In good years, Fancher said, as many as 100 pairs of terns may breed at Terminal Island. That they are raising their young in the midst of an industrial hub doesn't seem to bother the little birds.
"It doesn't care that cranes are half a mile away or about giant ships," Fancher said. "What it cares about is its nest site. The least tern is able to handle the urban environment if it is left the few essential things that it needs."
But in the coming decades, with the port projecting a demand for its services that will far exceed its capacity, those few essentials may be gone from Terminal Island.
The port's 2020 Plan--so named because it will govern expansion through that year--leaves no space on Terminal Island for the least tern, and port officials say they have already begun looking for another breeding ground.
Finding one won't be easy, however. There are few places left in Southern California that are conducive to the tern, and because the wildlife agencies want the mating sites spread out across the coast, the port-managed nesting area must be between Pt. Fermin and the San Gabriel River.
One site under consideration is the Los Cerritos Wetlands, but Fancher said the history of nesting there has been poor. The port has also considered building a separate island for the terns or floating barges for them in the harbor, but those options may create other problems by interfering with maritime traffic.
Fancher, meanwhile, insists that unless a new site that is as good or better can be found, Terminal Island will remain the summer home of the tern.
"They've got it planned out to the max," he said. "But the bottom line is, the Endangered Species Act and those of us who participate in its application won't allow the destruction of that colony, even for port development."