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Students to tidy beach for endangered birds

March 24, 2009 |  4:00 pm


Two third-grade classes from Leo Politi Elementary School in South Los Angeles will be joining a small army of volunteers on Saturday for the annual ritual of making Venice Beach hospitable for the California least terns that nest there every spring.

Their tasks will include preparing the returning colony's 8-acre nesting site by uprooting weeds, removing trash, creating dunes and building "chick fences" to keep young birds from wandering off, according to Mary Loquvam, executive director of the Los Angeles Audubon Society.

"These children are all students of urban wildlife," Loquvam said, "and in this program they will working on behalf of a local endangered species."

The California least tern is recognized by its white body, black-tipped wings and black-capped head. It grows to about 9 inches in length and is the smallest member of the tern family. The birds prefer to nest on flat, sparsely vegetated sandy ground near relatively still, shallow water where they can  dive for anchovies, smelt and other small fish.

They lay their eggs in small depressions in the sand, which renders them highly vulnerable to predators, particularly foxes, feral cats and crows.

California least terns have nested in the Venice Beach area since 1894, according to Audubon Society records. The existing colony was established in 1977 when three pairs nested on the sand just north of the mouth of Ballona Creek and local government agencies installed a protective fence around the site.

The enclosure has been a least tern nesting ground ever since.

"This colony is one of the few on California's coast, and had been producing about 16% of the yield on an annual basis," Loquvam said. "However, it has gone into decline in recent years. Right now, it produces roughly 12% of the annual yield and we're not sure why."

The campaign to tidy up the beach for the terns begins at 9 a.m. Saturday, March 28. It's part of a larger effort supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish and Game to study the colony.

For more information call Mary Loquvam at (323) 664-1294, or e-mail her at

-- Louis Sahagun

Illustration of California least tern by Stacey Vigallon, director of interpretation, Los Angeles Audubon Society.