Approximately 3,000 elegant terns at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach, California fled on May 12, leaving behind approximately 2,000 non-viable eggs. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the birds were scared away after an illegal drone crashed into their nesting area.

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The abandonment is the largest ever witnessed by scientists working at the reserve. Melissa Loebl, an environmental scientist who manages the Huntington Beach reserve, said, “We’ve never seen such devastation here. This has been really hard for me as a manager,” as reported by LA Times.

Related: Drones — the future of ocean conservation

While the drone crash was the triggering point for the abandonment, it was really caused by a string of issues. One factor that has been a big problem for local wildlife is increased human traffic. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people looking for outdoor activities found their way to the reserve area. Loebl explained that there has been an increase in the number of cyclists that veer off the designated trails and end up disturbing wildlife. She noted that people also bring dogs to wildlife areas, which can be alarming for most animals.

According to Nick Molsberry of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, drones are not permitted in state wildlife reserves due to the risk of causing disturbances. Anyone found running a drone in conservation areas may face extra charges in terms of nesting disturbance.

The biggest concern among scientists is that elegant terns have limited nesting areas. The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is the largest remaining coastal wetland in Southern California. About 95% of habitats in Southern California have been destroyed, leaving many species, like terns, with few safe nesting areas.

According to Loebl, about 800 species rely on just around 1,000 acres of land at the reserve. For the birds to nest at the park, a lot of work has to go into preparations. Volunteers spend months preparing human-made islands so that the birds can nest.

The now-missing terns arrived in April. Although elegant terns usually stay until August, they were disrupted early, leaving lifeless eggs.

“We worry about them because there’s so few nesting sites, not so much because of their numbers,” said Michael Horn, biology professor emeritus at Cal State Fullerton. “So that’s a reason why if a nest site doesn’t produce or fails, that’s concerning.”

Via LA Times

Image via Pixabay