Bird haven lives amid sprawl

David Moody is a serious birder. You could blindfold him, turn him loose in a field and he could tell you what kind of birds are around simply by listening.

His "patch," which is how bird-watchers refer to areas they're most familiar with, is a nearly 50-acre parcel of wilderness in Torrance called Madrona Marsh Nature Preserve.

To commuters on Sepulveda Boulevard, it seems little more than a weedy wasteland amid condo complexes and shopping centers; a good location, perhaps, for a ballpark or strip mall.

But to Moody, Madrona Marsh represents an oasis.

"I work in an emergency room and I need a break," said Marsh, a CT-scan technician. "You get gunshot victims, they bring them to me. We determine, do they go to surgery or do they not. I deal with broken bodies and then I never see them again, so I always see them at their worst.

"I need therapy, so I come out here and this is my therapy."

Suddenly, in the southern portion of the preserve, a hummingbird whizzes by and lands on a branch. "Allen's hummingbird," Moody says, almost instantaneously. "You can tell by its red rump."


That's no hummingbird swooping in from a tall white building across the street.

It's a peregrine falcon, traveling swiftly over the grassy meadow, arriving just as Moody's guided walk is getting underway.

A juvenile female, he informs, after a glimpse through his binoculars. The smaller birds call to each other and dart for cover in the underbrush.

Circling back, the falcon takes a swipe at a mourning dove perched high in a poplar.

But she misses and, with opportunities lost, she soars up and away. Slowly, the meadow reawakens with birdsong and the fluttering of sparrows -- House and white-crowned, for those keeping score. Phoebes and finches also emerge, as does a silky brown cedar waxwing.

Binoculars swing this way and that. Traffic on the boulevard? It's entirely tuned out.


Moody's patch is a patch in the truest sense: a fenced-in piece of country a stone's throw from a gas station and a Target superstore.

If its presence amid so much urban sprawl seems unnatural, it is in fact the other way around.

Madrona Marsh looks the way much of the South Bay did before the development boom. Now it is the last vernal marsh left in Los Angeles County.

A vernal marsh is a depression flooded by runoff from surrounding slopes. These marshlands, dry in the summer and wet during winter and spring, support native grasses and are shaded by live oaks, eucalyptus, poplars and willows. The property, managed by the city and supported by Friends of Madrona Marsh, was spared from development when it was set aside for oil production in 1924. It became a preserve in 1986.

"I love ball fields and I love sports, but to have a completely natural area here is a real treasure because there wasn't adequate planning in this city," says Tommye Hite, a visitor from Redondo Beach. "They didn't leave enough big park areas."

The public is allowed in from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., but the preserve is foremost a bird-watchers' paradise, and many birders participate in periodic guided walks before gates open, or arrange for early entry through manager Tracy Drake. She and Moody, as well as restoration specialist Ron Melin, are among many who work to keep the preserve pristine.

As the seasons change, birds from various global regions pass by during their migrations and stop for a lengthy respite or a quick bite, Drake says.

Soon several species of waterfowl and other nesting birds will arrive. Late last month, an adult snow goose spent two weeks here, luring birders from afar.

The sighting was a first in the preserve and one of the few ever noted in the Southern California coastal area. It brings the species tally within the preserve to 248. That is more than double the number before Moody, who is also a biologist, adopted Madrona as his patch 16 years ago.

On this day he has counted 35 species, the details of which he will log into a computer database for the sake of scrutiny and comparison. Even the tiniest of wild areas, he says, can reveal a wealth of information about the health of the avian universe and habits of its creatures.

"The birds we see here may go off to the Arctic, or they may go to the mountains or the desert," Moody says. "We had a peregrine today. It used to be endangered and it staged a comeback, and now we've got one hunting here.

"You can do something locally and help us understand what's going on in a bigger picture, and that's what we're doing. We didn't used to know what was truly here, so I began to compile a list and lead tours and tell people what was in their backyard."

As this two-hour tour draws to an end and the group begins its long march toward the gate, Moody makes it clear that this is much more than a patch.

"This is my backyard," he says, scanning the landscape with open arms. "My marsh."


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