Natural Perspectives: Conservation Corps descends on Bolsa Chica

The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve has had a stroke of good luck. A crew from the Orange County Conservation Corps has come to work with the Bolsa Chica Conservancy and the California Department of Fish and Game to improve habitat for wildlife. They started three weeks ago. Some of the main beneficiaries of their work will be the endangered California least terns and threatened Western snowy plovers.

Gil Morales, a new supervisor with the corps, is in charge of this crew of 12 corps members. They will be stationed at Bolsa Chica through August. At that time, Grace Adams, executive director of the conservancy, and Josh Volp, director of operations at the Conservation Corps, expect to obtain Proposition 84 funds that will keep the crew at Bolsa Chica for another three to four months.

Vic and I are giddy with excitement about how much restoration work the crew will be able to accomplish in that time. Well, I am, anyway. I don't think I could ever describe staid Vic as giddy. Kelly O'Reilly, a DFG biologist, is also excited. Her staff of Gary Keller and Peter Knapp will be working with corps crew members to help them identify which plants to remove. They scout out work areas where birds are not currently nesting.

The first couple of weeks the corps crew was at Bolsa Chica, it did some restoration work around the conservancy's interpretive center at Warner Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway. Working with Patrick Scott, a naturalist with the conservancy, they transplanted some overgrown native saltgrass from a demonstration plot. They used plugs of saltgrass to fill in bare areas along the trail from the parking lot to the walkbridge. They will also be maintaining those transplants, as anything planted at this time of year will need supplemental water until the rainy season begins in October.

Working with John Eckhoff, a plant specialist with DFG, the crew removed nonnative sea rocket and a new invasive plant, salt plantain. David Pryor, a biologist with California State Parks, had pointed out this new invasive plant at a training session at the conservancy a couple of months ago. It has just popped up at the state beaches locally and spread over to the ecological reserve. The corps crew nipped that problem in the bud, removing all of the sand plantain from the dunes along PCH.

The corps crew is now facing its largest task, clearing Nest Site One in anticipation of next year's nesting season. This summer, neither Western snowy plovers nor California least terns made much use of the north end of the dune strip immediately behind the fence at the end of the boardwalk. This nest site, which looks like an airport runway, was created for these birds during the 2006 major restoration project. Since then, native dune plants have colonized the sand. It got to be too much of a good thing. The conservancy's Eyes on Nest Sites monitoring program determined that the terns and plovers weren't nesting on the heavily vegetated dune area this year.

Each spring, the Amigos de Bolsa Chica organize a work party to clear off the artificial sand islands in Inner Bolsa Bay. But the huge area of Nest Site One is the sole responsibility of Keller and Knapp. It's too big an area for just two people to maintain.

I went to Bolsa Chica earlier this week to see the progress that the corps crew is making. It breaks my heart to see all those native plants being hoed out, but it has to be done. There is just no room for the birds to nest there, and that is the purpose of that site. Under Keller and Knapp's direction, the corps crew leaves behind all pickleweed.

They also keep scattered natives such as saltgrass and heliotrope, which are habitat for threatened wandering skipper butterflies, and other native plants such as sand verbena and beach primrose. But weedy natives such as horseweed and telegraph weed are hoed out, along with nonnative crystalline iceplant and yellow sweet clover.

Part of the corps crew's experience at Bolsa Chica involves education. Vic gave them an introduction to ecology lecture when they first arrived. One day last week, I took them to the public docks at the Huntington Harbour Yacht Club. They pulled mussels off the docks to feed the sea stars in the conservancy's marine aquarium and touch tank. Along with the mussels came a variety of other marine life. They got to see and touch tunicates, kelp lace and a variety of seaweeds.

Maria Gomez noted that the tunicates looked like boogers. Yep, and they feel like boogers too. They're slimy, gelatinous gray blobs that have one or two tubes, depending on species. Water goes in and out the tubes, and that brings plankton into the tunicates. That's how they eat.

The corps members also got to see how sea stars eat. A sea star slowly wraps its legs around a mussel, pries it open and everts its five-lobed stomach into the shell. It takes about an hour for it to digest the mussel. Then the stomach goes back into the sea star.

One of the corps members, Francisco Torres, lives in Huntington Beach. He enjoys his work at Bolsa Chica so much that he will be volunteering at the conservancy on weekends, continuing with restoration work. This volunteer work will earn him scholarship dollars to attend the college or training program of his choice once he earns his high school diploma at the corps.

Other members of the crew are Andrew Arreola, David De Herrera, Rogelio Flores-Barcenas, Bryan Garcia, Ruben Garcia, Uzniel Garcia, Annette Gonzales, Johnny Lopez, Edward Moreno and Steve Olivares. If you have some spare time between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday, go say hi to the crew at the end of the boardwalk. They are hungry teenagers and would greatly appreciate snacks or cold drinks if you are so inclined.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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