Wildlife. The Fight for Space. : As homes march up hillsides and offices sprout on fields, Orange County’s wildlife battles for its dwindlng habitat. : Crucial Turn Sought in Least Tern Wars


In the wild, the California least tern is a shy, diminutive bird that, unless gathered in a large flock, is barely able to survive.

But in urban Orange County, this meek creature has emerged as a prominent player during the last two decades.

Since gaining formal protection under the federal Rare and Endangered Species Act of 1973, the tern has frequently been the main focus of feuds among developers, government officials and environmentalists.


And after years of efforts by environmentalists to preserve and restore shrinking natural habitats along the county’s northern coastline, which once teemed with the gull-like birds, the fate of the least tern is again facing a key juncture.

Whether the migratory birds again flourish in the area, home to more than one-fourth of the state’s least terns from April to September, may depend heavily on the future of two privately owned wetlands in Huntington Beach. Together they could make up as much as 135 acres of nesting areas for the birds.

“If we’re able to save the habitat, we have a chance of saving the least tern,” said Louann Murray, a biologist and member of Amigos de Bolsa Chica Wetlands. “If not, there’s no chance.”

The least tern, so called because it is the smallest of 39 tern species, feeds on fish from estuaries and builds nests in the sand. Because the sand in Huntington Beach, which the bird originally used, is now almost entirely frequented by surfers and sunbathers, and the neighboring wetlands it now uses as breeding grounds are slowly being refurbished after years of neglect, the tern is pinched for nesting space.

This year, the birds that flocked to the area nested mainly at four sites: the 1,300-acre Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge at Anaheim Bay; the Bolsa Chica Wetlands Reserve, being expanded from about 350 acres of functioning wetlands to as much as 1,150 acres; the 10-acre Least Tern State Park Reserve, a fenced-off section of Huntington State Beach on the north lip of the Santa Ana River mouth, and the Upper Newport Bay State Ecological Reserve.

All four sites this year saw either a decrease or marginal increase in the number of tern pairs, and the total number of fledglings produced was significantly lower than in recent years, said Esther Burkett, a state Fish and Game biologist.


The biggest problem has been an influx of predators, mainly red foxes and, more recently, American kestrels, a type of falcon.

Additionally, flocks of larger, more aggressive birds have begun breeding in the four Huntington Beach-area wetlands regions, posing harsh competition for nesting areas with the least terns.

While state and federal officials and local activists work to solve these problems, two Huntington Beach wetlands being considered for at least partial development are being considered increasingly vital nesting space for the least tern.

One area in conflict is the remaining 75 acres of wetlands along the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway and immediately south of the Edison Co. Generating Plant, stretching from Newland Street to Brookhurst Street.

Similarly, a 57-acre area of wetlands running north of that parcel to Beach Boulevard, owned by Mills Land & Water Co., is being targeted for development.

“It’s a difficult dilemma,” Burkett said, “because you’re dealing with private ownership, and those owners insist they want to be able to build on their property, but there are regulations restricting them. But, you just can’t take that land away from them. You have to somehow pay them back for it.”

Along with the two areas in dispute, state and federal wildlife officials are working to restore a 94-acre wetlands site within the mouth of the Santa Ana River and the Sunset Beach Aquatic Park.

“We don’t want to hold the number of least terns at 1,000 pair statewide,” Burkett said. “We hope to eventually remove the least tern from the endangered species list.”