Harbor Park Essays

Although I surely was at the park many times before, one of my earliest memories from the site was due to the new car the family was in. It was March, 1964 and we drove from Orange County to Harbor Park to go see some birds in the funny smelling (new) vehicle to see how six fit in it compared to the Rambler Station Wagon, despite the rain. Although people looked at us funny, the window viewing was much improved in the VW "van." We parked on the north side of Pacific Coast Hwy., on the west bank of the Wilmington Drain (the condos on the east side of the drain weren’t there). It was a huge swampy marsh and pond, absolutely loaded with birds. We could watch from the VW van in the rain, and still be close to lots of stuff. I recall asking my folks if they’d noticed there were two types of pale-backed reddish-headed ducks in the flock of diving ducks feeding there. At that moment, at eight-years old, I learned Redhead from Canvasback.

"South Bay Snow" - "Willow Fuzz" (seeds) key Goldfinch nest material

Another early memory from the site was on an Orange County Audubon Society field trip there. Their big fall trip was to "Harbor Park," led by one of the all-time great birders, Jim Lane, the father of "where to find 'em' guides."

It was October 20, 1967 and the "park" wasn’t one yet ... the west side of the lake along Vermont wasn’t lawn, rather mostly mulefat, with scattered patches of huge willows and a few dirt roads through it going to the lake. In one patch of willows, Jim found a Blackpoll, an eastern vagrant warbler probably unknown in L.A. County at the time. It was a "lifer" for almost everyone except him. We then walked through the mulefat down the road to the lake. A warbler, unlike any I'd seen, jumped in the mulefat and flitted across in front of Jim and I (I got to be in front next to Jim.) It was bright yellow underneath, green on back, with wingbars, a little streaking on the sides, but it got away. We only bare-eyed it, but it was clearly something unusual. Jim put the word out, and the next day Shirley Wells and Jay Sheppard refound the mystery warbler, a Prairie!! Also unknown in the county then, and still the only park record. We saw it but couldn’t count it because we didn’t ID it from the views we had! Jim had found two new county warblers in one day at the site! Such was the magic of Jim and "Harbor Park."

Since those early days I've birded the park fairly regularly, and I particularly studied here from '73 to '82. I left the state and studied eastern birds from '82-'89, but upon my return found myself haunting the park again. Over the last decade I’ve birded it intensively, and have been a citizen advisor on the Park Advisory Board, at the suggestion (insistence) of Ken Malloy, the late, great preservationist who helped keep the park a public place.

I've seen many changes at the site, and in regards to the health and well-being of the habitat and wildlife, darn few that have been positive. The City of Los Angeles has yet to recognize what a goldmine they have here and uses the riparian areas that are left to hide homeless and trash. Out of sight, out of mind, eh? The last stand of natural forest and the only natural lake with tule marsh that remains in the entire coastal strip of the L.A. basin from Santa Monica to Long Beach, inland to the L.A. River, is desecrated daily because the City of Los Angeles doesn’t care. It’s not policed or patrolled, and virtually no rules are enforced. Bird at your own risk, and I suggest carrying pepper spray.

How many places of a half square mile have 340 species recorded? How many that have no environmental protection whatsoever? I can think of several places with such lists illustrating by their diversity their "bird magnet" value. Here in California, places like Pt. Loma in San Diego, Furnace Creek in Death Valley, SE Farallon Is. or Pt. Reyes near San Francisco, for instance, have this level of diversity. However, all have the protection of National Monument, National Park, State Park, or Refuge status. That is to say that the habitat has protection. Not so at Harbor Park. There is no place in L.A. City or County that is so attractive to so many species. It is the most important place to the most species of any site in the City of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, this appears to mean absolutely nothing to city officials.

Countless branches of City or County government have jurisdiction here, and I doubt they have ever all sat down at one place and time. Each has its own personal agenda, none of which include habitat or wildlife values.

At the current rate of decline in nesting species (e.g., habitat), over 33% in last 50 years, what will be left in 50 years? Will they look at this list and say "Yeah, sure all this used to be here ..." ? Unless the management attitudes of the City change, there is little hope for the birds or the habitat of Harbor Park.

I think if it were anywhere else it would be a protected refuge or park with the habitat preciously guarded against the types of abuse this site suffers on a daily basis by neglect of the city. Only in L.A. could something of such value be treated like an unwanted step-child. The golf course on the east side of the lake wanted to remove the willows so the golfers would have a nicer view! They dump all the pesticide and fertilizer-laced grass cuttings off the course into the wetland to this day (8-Y2K)!

Public Works split the 10+ acre willow forest at the north end into two, removing four acres of climax forest, as an issue of public safety, to "increase water flow" a couple years ago. Now, without a canopy, the undergrowth is several factors thicker, and water flow much less than it was before they destroyed the integrity of the largest single patch of historical native willow forest left along the coast. Had they just left the old tall trees, the undergrowth would be a fraction of what it is now. Yet these agencies have the power to destroy the habitat, even if it doesn’t accomplish what they say it will. These types of displays of ignorance and abuse are commonplace events here. Trash is no longer trash if it blows off the lawn into the riparian areas. The city houses dozens of homeless citizens (?) there who defecate in the forests daily, which ends up in the lake, and then in L.A. Harbor, and that's OK too. NO problem. The couple of acres used to hide the homeless are the only two acres at the park without a single bird nest, and in a 90-day survey in Y2K, not even a foraging bird was found in these two acres!

The forest floor is getting so compacted from the constant trampling, it's as hard as a desert floor. The city is killing the forest, destroying the historical habitat, despite ten years of my complaints about it on the record. They ought to be ashamed of themselves. I am. The only question is, "What’s next?"

Based on its historical uses, as the water source for the ships (drum barracks) in the harbor, oil drilling, mud mining, the junction of properties of Dominguez, Sepulveda, and Machado (not to mention the site of several early Gabrielino Native American villages), one would think it would be a historical site as well as a habitat refuge. My guess is that it would be about the only place Dominguez, Sepulveda, or Machado would even recognize if they were to see Los Angeles today.

Unfortunately, history is about as important as habitat to the city. Nearby, Banning Park IS a historical site, yet the city has removed many dozen healthy trees for various special interest projects and wants to remove more of these historically important trees left to ALL of us for more special interests.

If you find all this as appalling as I do, please write the Mayor of the City of Los Angeles a letter stating so and "cc" me please. Should the state or feds step in as they have with the LAPD in order to save or fix it? I wish they would order them to take care of the habitat, or lose it, period. We will lose it if we continue the habitual neglect the City has called management.