Protecting What You Love While Visiting Bolsa Chica
by Bequi Howarth
You park your car in the lot off Warner Ave, grab a water bottle and head out towards the trail. It’s a clear, warm day with a light breeze, perfect for a hike. On the footbridge you look down into the water and see a school of fish just below the surface. Looking over the other side of the bridge you see two large white Moon Jellies drifting with the current, the worries of the day begin to melt away. Continuing across the bridge onto the trail a rabbit darts from one bush to another and you see the smooth track of a snake that recently crossed the trail. Big exhales feel good as you release the stress of a busy day and each inhale brings clean, earthy smells of Coastal Sage Scrub plants. Aromatic sages, chocolaty Brittlebush Sunflower, salt water and fresh grass help you relax and clear your head. A flock of pelicans glide past low over the water and over the heads of long legged shore birds poking around in the mud. A squirrel sits in the grass watching you pass by and little birds twitter as they flit from bush to bush looking for seeds and insects to eat. You step carefully around big, black Darkling Beetles who are also using the trail and lizards dart into the grass as you approach. It’s so peaceful here, so different from the street you live on.
Welcome to the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve! Owned by the State of California, managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, this land has been set aside specifically to protect the wildlife and wildlife habitat you’ve already encountered and many others that you’ll probably never see. Yes, there are rules here mostly designed for the benefit of the plants and animals that call this place home. Biologists and bird experts agree that dogs and bicycles are directly responsible for a reduction of the number of birds and other animal species along trails. So, we ask people to leave their dogs and bikes at home. That’s why you get to see so much wildlife during your walk. Drones can also have a disruptive and devastating effect on nesting birds and Bolsa Chica is a rare and important stop for hundreds of bird species along the Pacific Flyway between South America and Alaska. So, we ask that people not fly their drones overhead.
Coastal Sage Scrub habitat was once abundant along the southern California coast, but has been drastically reduced in the rush of people who also want to live by the beach. Ecological Reserves, like Bolsa Chica, have strict limitations on recreational activity if allowed at all, and we are so lucky that the State of California has allowed the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to maintain a trail along the edge of the Bolsa Chica mesa. On this trail people can experience a 360° view of wetland and coastal habitat right in the middle of Huntington Beach. However, remember those rules I mentioned above? Some of them are designed to protect the wildlife habitat like staying on the trail and not picking the vegetation. Most of Bolsa Chica has been abused and degraded for a couple hundred years and many non-native plants have moved in and taken over.
The Bolsa Chica Land Trust, with permission and in conjunction with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, has been working on habitat restoration for the past 25 years. And we’ve been successful! Each of those bushes and wildflowers you see were painstakingly planted by hand and individually watered for months until they were strong enough to survive on their own. Once established, every leaf, blossom and seed is a critical part of keeping the wildlife and habitat growing strong. Birds, mammals and insects use plants for food, shelter and even as a source of water. Seeds are not only a food source, but also important for helping the habitat to expand and, we hope, to eventually cover all of the Bolsa Chica mesa. When you step off the main trail you never know what you are stepping on. It could be tiny wildflowers trying to germinate, grow and produce more wildflowers.
How do you know that you’re on the right trail? It’s the big wide one that meanders parallel between the fence and the cliff by the water. Any trails that go straight from the big wide trail to the edge of the cliff are unauthorized trails that were created by people stepping off the main trail and onto sensitive plants until all of the plants were crushed and a narrow social trail was created. These trails are very destructive to the surrounding habitat and reduce the area where animals feel safe. Walking on these trails not only prevents little annual wildflowers from growing it prevents any plants from growing there. This means there is even less food sources for wildlife, fewer nesting places for birds and less opportunities for ground squirrels and other burrowing animals to create homes.
It’s not just the wildlife we are concerned about though. The edge of the bluff is constantly being eroded by tidal waters and any part of it can collapse at any time which puts people in harm’s way. Fortunately, there are turn outs and safe areas with benches and interpretive signs that can get you close enough to have a look over the side without trampling plants or you falling off the edge.
Deciding to take a break you sit on one of the benches along the trail and notice a very tall gray bird standing in the grass at the cliff edge looking out over the bay. This Great Blue Heron seems to be enjoying the view just like you. The sun sinks lower in the sky and you feel thankful for this wild open space just a few minutes’ drive from your house and you consider all the ways that you can protect it for generations to come.
photos: Bequi Howarth