The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Orange County, California, is supposed to be a safe haven for nesting and breeding birds. But over the last two weeks, the 1,300-acre coastal estuary has turned into a mass burial ground for unborn elegant terns. And reckless drone pilots are to blame.
Elegant terns are easy to recognize with their stiletto-like orange bills, shaggy black crests, and a blush of rose-pink to the underside when they breed. The California coast is one of the very few places where these sleek seabirds like to nest. However, this breeding season has been nothing short of horrific for the terns who laid eggs at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.
With COVID-19 prompting more people to recreate outdoors, visitors to the reserve have nearly doubled in the past months. And along with these human visitors have come other companions – dogs, bikes, and drones – none of which are allowed at the reserve.
The tragedy summed up in the picture above came about two weeks ago when not one, but two drones crashed at the reserve. While the drones were disturbing enough for birds, humans added to the disruption when they went down to recover the machines, officers from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) tell local news outlets.
The result? Thousands of frightened mom and dad terns left their nesting site, abandoning at least 1,500 eggs that were being incubated.
According to a statement by Bolsa Chica Conservancy:
A couple of weeks ago, thousands of Elegant Terns were lost when two drones crashed by Tern Island. It is believed that the nesting terns left the eggs they were incubating in a response to the threat that the drones posed. This has never happened at such a large scale at the reserve.
While one of the drone pilots has been cited by the CDFW for violating its rules, the other drone operator could not be located.
The management at the reserve now plans to start a land stewardship program to educate visitors. Meanwhile, the CDFW has issued this statement:
While CDFW understands the attraction of this beautiful facility, the agency is urging visitors to be more protective of the sensitive habitats and wildlife species that exist at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.
The fledgling drone community is still fighting for public acceptance in many parts of the world. Any kind of irresponsible or reckless drone use will only make the public opinion turn against drone enthusiasts.
So, even if the rules don’t specifically forbid you from operating your machines in a specific area or your flight planning app tells you the airspace above a reserve is not restricted (as this Twitter user was quick to point out), when it comes to wildlife, let’s just follow common sense: Do not harass wildlife with drones. Period.
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