Rare birds living on the edge at Hansen Dam park

Times Staff Writer

The Hansen Dam Recreation Center is an intersection in the San Fernando Valley where open space and the suburbs clash head-on, a place blessed with willows and water and plagued by homeless encampments, crack dens and off-roaders.

It is also prone to fires, such as one May 13 that destroyed 80 acres of nesting grounds for a remarkably diverse avian population, including one of the world’s rarest songbirds, the federally endangered least Bell’s vireo.

On Saturday, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History ornithologist Kimball Garrett strode through what remained of the area’s dense groves. Of particular concern were the 10 to 15 pairs of least Bell’s vireos believed to have settled there this year.

Peering through binoculars, he scanned an expanse of charred trees and said, “It’s as disastrous as I feared. There’s a striking lack of birds except for crows and ravens searching for charbroiled mice.

“This is the height of the breeding season,” he said. “Many birds with nests and young birds did not survive.”


The recent blaze was the latest in a series of fires at the sprawling Lake View Terrace facility. A one-acre fire a day earlier in the same area was believed started by a transient cooking in the willows. A year ago, a fire ravaged a stand of alders, sycamores, willows and cottonwoods.

Curbing fires is only one of the goals of Garrett and other nature enthusiasts who are calling for stricter enforcement of rules to protect the wild side of Hansen Dam, a heavily used recreation area that also features a fishing lake, a golf course, soccer fields, equestrian facilities and a swimming pool.

Constructed in the 1930s by the Army Corps of Engineers as a flood control basin, the land behind the dam was allowed to fill with water after World War II. Eventually, the lake filled with silt from Tujunga Wash, spawning an ecosystem that biologists say is among the most important bird sites in Southern California.

Although Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks rangers occasionally patrol the maze of paths cut through the area’s lush forests, it’s never enough. Signs listing regulations that ban smoking, fires, off-road vehicles and walking dogs without a leash are nowhere to be found.

The result: garbage, discarded clothing, diapers, syringes, and dog and human excrement scattered throughout an area that is home for a range of sensitive bird species. Visitors also complain that the groves have become distressingly popular for trysts, even in the daytime. In some places, trees have been marked by taggers.

On Saturday, a campfire strewn with beer cans and cigarette butts smoldered at the edge of the area that had burned a week before. Nearby, a visitor proudly urged his off-leash beagle to chase desert cottontail rabbits.

“Why not? There’s no rules here,” the man said. “If there’s a regulation, they ought to put up a sign. Unpublished regulations don’t exist.”

Such problems aren’t unique to Hansen Dam. Nearly all of the dam projects in Southern California have attracted wildlife and a crush of visitors seeking to enjoy a taste of the outdoors. Many of the projects, however -- including the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area and the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve -- have managed to enforce restrictions with the help of volunteers.

Daniel Cooper, owner of Cooper Ecological Monitoring in Pasadena, a private consulting company, has a name for the situation at Hansen. He calls it mismanagement.

“Management is out the window at Hansen Dam -- it’s a free-for-all out there,” he said. “Yet, it’s one of the most significant natural habitat areas in the Los Angeles Basin and a remnant of what the San Fernando Valley looked like before it was developed.”

Kris Ohlenkamp, president of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society, added that “our chapter has always expressed an interest in the Hansen Dam area. We are working toward somehow designating a portion of it as a wildlife preserve.”

City recreation and parks interim chief ranger Albert E. Torres agreed that the city has not been up to the challenge because of a lack of money and staffing.

“It’s a resource problem,” he said. “We have the tools, we just need more.”

But Torres, a self-described bird-watcher, also pointed out that a joint effort by a variety of city agencies and a citizen advisory panel will soon erect signs in English and Spanish. Torres also expects a full-time ranger to be put on duty at the center sometime next year.

Any attempts to put the brakes on the trashing of Hansen Dam’s open space can’t happen soon enough for Garrett, who has visited the area hundreds of times in recent years and keeps a field journal of his sightings.

Scanning swaying branches and undergrowth Saturday, he spotted a significant list of noteworthy birds in less than an hour: blue grosbeaks, yellow-breasted chats, American goldfinches, a warbling vireo, a purple finch, black-headed grosbeaks, yellow warblers, ash-throated flycatchers and a few least Bell’s vireos.

Walking a path in least Bell’s vireo territory that had burned to the ground a week ago, Garrett shook his head and said, “This used to resemble a jungle. I think we’ve lost half a dozen of the territories established here by least Bell’s vireo breeding males. A common misunderstanding is that birds can simply move away from burning trees. That’s like saying if your house burns down, you move into the one next door.

“The solution is not to fence this place off,” he added. “We just need to enforce it better and make people more aware of its value before it slips away.”