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Above All, a Place to Nest : Platform Builders Hope to Lure Blue Herons From Dying Trees

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Biology and the electric company met Friday on the banks of the Santa Ana River as Southern California Edison workers spent the day erecting old utility poles and platforms to lure a flock of blue herons from a dying eucalyptus grove.

The effort represents a first-of-its-kind attempt locally to provide such artificial nesting for the giant, gangly birds, and it has brought together representatives of Southern California Edison, the Irvine Co. and Orange County’s environmental movement.

“They (Edison) eagerly jumped at the opportunity to do something good for the environment,” said Dan Pearson, a senior biologist for the company who worked with a six-man crew from dawn until dusk Friday putting up three 80-foot poles. “There have been heron platforms established in other parts of the country, but to my knowledge never before in Southern California.”

By late afternoon, workers were putting the finishing touches on the recycled electrical poles, capping each with six square platforms built from scrap materials.

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“It’s a great feeling to be able to do something for the environment,” Dana Johnson, the senior patrolman at the site, said as workers finished attaching the platforms to the poles. “All of this would have gone to the scrap yard. I’m glad we could put the material to good use.”

Edison donated the recycled materials and manpower, and the Irvine Co. became involved when a housing project near Irvine Lake threatened to destroy a heron nesting site. According to Peter H. Bloom, a research biologist whose firm was hired by the Irvine Co. to oversee the project, the developer donated $3,500 to the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology to find other heron nesting places.

“This is an experiment,” said Bloom, who hopes that the number of birds making their nests in and around the strand of eucalyptus trees near the river will double by next spring.

There are about 30 herons that now use the area--known in bird circles as a rookery--and Bloom hopes that in February, when the herons begin their mating season, they will set up house in the artificial nests as though they were natural ones.

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Biologists believe that the birds will be fooled because the poles have been placed near the dying trees, and the platforms have been attractively covered with sticks and leaves.

Bloom said artificial nesting for other birds has worked in other places, including the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge in Orange County.

“They built an observation tower for adult use, but the herons took it over,” he said, smiling. “So we feel confident that this will work. I’d be surprised if we didn’t see reproduction by early spring.”

Still, not all birds take to artificial nests, so its backers will wait in anticipation to see whether this flock of herons comes home to roost. A similar experiment by Orange County three years ago failed, Bloom said, but he hastened to add that the poles used in that test were too short and were not close enough to the trees.

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“Besides, they didn’t make the nest-site sexy,” Bloom added.

This time around, the Edison crew used the sticks and leaves from the herons’ original nests on the artificial platforms, part of the ploy to make the artificial sites more enticing for the birds to lay their eggs.

Although blue herons are not an endangered species, Bloom said the majestic birds only make nests in a few areas, so protecting those sites is important to their survival.

“There are only six (heron) nesting sites in Orange County, and this is one of them,” said Bloom, pointing to the two dying eucalyptus trees on the river’s bank. Bloom said the trees are dying slowly from the top down and will be gone within five to 20 years.

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If the project is a success, Bloom hopes to add more poles at another site farther up the river by the Prado Dam.

For now, however, Bloom and his associates are setting their sights on the first goal: to lure a few of the herons out of their regular nests and into their new riverbank quarters.

“If we get one pair (herons) nesting on a pole,” Bloom said, “I’ll be tickled pink.”


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