The Audubon Education Program at the Ballona Wetlands: What Goes on Down There?

By Cindy Hardin, Director Environmental Education Programs

Photography by Leslie Davidson

October 3, 2012


Student visitors, Los Angeles Audubon Education Program at Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve

Many times when I tell people that I manage the Audubon Education Program at the Ballona Wetlands I get questions. The first one is “Where’s that?”  When I explain that the wetlands are located in Playa del Rey off of Culver Boulevard, people often say: “I drive by there all the time; what wetlands?” It is difficult to notice the wetlands through the windows of a car traveling at 50 mph, but once I describe the site, most people are intrigued, and want to see it. I then tell them that although Ballona is not really open to the general public, they could visit most every Tuesday and Thursday during the school year if they become volunteer docents for our program. It never hurts to be on the lookout for new recruits!


Welcome to Ballona! This is the first thing students see upon their arrival.

Of course, the natural follow-up to this offer is “Well, what exactly do you do down there?”. I realize that many members of Audubon are aware of and support our work at Ballona, but might not be really sure of what it is we “do down there”. The answer is: Many things!

Almost every Tuesday and Thursday morning during the school year a bus rattles into the gravel parking lot behind Gordon’s Market in Playa del Rey and disgorges 60 ten-year-old students. The children are already excited about the wetlands because a Ballona volunteer docent visited their school in the previous week to prepare them for their field trip. This pre-site visit is provided to every class that comes to Ballona, and includes exhibits of realia, feathers and bones that the children can handle, and panels on native plants, animals of the wetlands and the Tongva Native Americans who once used the wetlands as a hunting and gathering ground.

The students enter the Ecological Reserve and immediately see a half size model of a ki`iy, the type of home used by the Tongva. We stop here briefly and discuss the first people of Ballona, making sure to point out the nearby willow trees of the same type that were once used by the Tongva to frame their homes. A major component of Social Studies for fourth-graders in California is the study of the mission system, and we like to complement that unit with some education about the Tongva.

After the stop at the ki`iy the students are taken to our amphitheatre, where they are quickly divided into four groups of equal size, and assigned a docent tour leader. Binoculars are distributed, and each docent gives a quick lesson on binocular use and safety. Now it is time to get out into the wetlands!


Ballona Wetlands Docent Training

Each group rotates between four stations, so although the itinerary varies, every child participates in each activity. First stop for tour number three is the “Ecology Station”. We lead them along the “Trestle Trail” out to our viewing platform. Along the way we might see a Belding’s Savannah Sparrow flitting amongst the Pickleweed or a Northern Harrier foraging for a furry feast! The platform is perched at the edge of the tidal channel that feeds the marsh. We never know what we might see, but a good bet is the Great Blue Heron or Egrets of both the Great and Snowy variety. Here’s our chance to discuss the unique and vanishing ecosystem that characterizes a salt marsh. We also look into the water to see if we can spot any aquatic invertebrates or fish that are an important link in the local food web. The students scan the marsh with their binoculars, and some sharp-eyed birders in training might spot a Kingfisher sitting atop the dead Myoporum down the channel, or ask about the hundreds of Black-Bellied Plovers resting on the salt pan to towards the creek.


The groups study aquatic invertebrates and algae from water samples drawn from the tidal channel.

We move the group on to the next station, which features microscopes. Aquatic invertebrates and algae are the main attractions at this stop. Every week we draw a water sample from the tidal channel, and on tour days we fish out the “critters” to be viewed under the microscopes. During the rainy season we also take samples from our vernal pond, which hosts freshwater invertebrates, including mosquito larvae, dragonfly nymphs and water boatmen. At this station the students learn that Algae has its very own Kingdom, Protista, and that through the process of photosynthesis provides approximately 65% of the oxygen on this planet. The initial reaction to algae includes words like “slimy”, “nasty” and “gross”. Upon learning its importance to our very survival, distaste turns to awe. After a brief lesson on invertebrates and their role in the food web at Ballona by our Microscope Station docent, it’s time to view the creatures. California Horn Snails extend themselves out of their shells, looking like elephant trunks under the ‘scopes. Shrimp-like amphipods scud across the watch glasses, hiding amongst the algae. Nematode worms give us a chance to talk about indicator species and e.coli bacteria. The students record all of this action by drawing what they see. Each drawing is sent back to school with the students to help remind them of the importance of “the little things” in the food web.

Now it’s time to go out onto the dune trail. To the east students can view the salt marsh, and to the west are thickets of willow and native dune plants. Initiated by the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, restoration of these dunes has been ongoing for over twenty years. Areas that were once covered by thick mats of Ice Plant or weedy introduced grasses now host a profusion of California natives. Silvery Dune Lupine glints in the sun, Dune Buckwheat is swarmed by Marine Blue and Wandering Skipper butterflies, and Caterpillar Phacelia is surrounded by buzzing bees. Much of the removal of introduced plants was done by visiting students, and we still put them to work when we stop at the Restoration Station. Our project of the last two years has been removing introduced grasses in a meadow area off of the dune trail. This has been extremely successful, and a carpet of Marsh Heliotrope now covers the area. Along the trail we are often accompanied by a flitting Black Phoebe, who is attracted by the insects that are stirred up by the train of children passing through.

Finally, we reach Ballona Creek, location of the Bird Station. Along the creek we scan for shorebirds. Sometimes a Brown Pelican will plunge dive into the creek right in front of the students-a real show stopper. If we’re lucky we might see an Oyster Catcher or two, with its “glow stick” beak. We come upon the spotting scopes that have been set up by our Bird Station docents. Look across the creek. Are those rocks moving?! We look more closely through the ‘scopes and see that hundreds of Willets and Marbled Godwits are roosting on the north side of the creek-they’re not rocks at all! This is an opportunity to talk about the foraging techniques of the “stabbers and grabbers”, camouflage, migration or nesting, depending on the time of year and activity present. This last spring we were lucky enough to have a pair of Tree Swallows in a nesting box directly adjacent to the Bird Station. They were often seen swooping and diving as they hunted for insects to feed their offspring nestled deep inside the box.

All too soon it is time to take our trek back to the amphitheatre as the tour concludes. If time allows we make a stop at the Arroyo Willows and look for the red bumps on the leaves that are the hallmark of the Willow Sawfly Gall Wasp. We ask the children to guess as to what are the prominent red bumps on the leaves. No, they’re not berries; they harbor a small worm-like larva that will soon gnaw its way out, fall into the leaf litter and morph into a tiny wasp. If we look carefully we can see small holes in some of the galls that provide evidence of this process. This activity happens most abundantly in the Spring, at the exact same time that our insect-eating birds have extra mouths to feed. It’s a great chance to talk about how well Nature works when left to its own devices.


Great Egret at Ballona Wetlands

The children return to their seats at the amphitheatre and are given a chance to ask any last minute questions about the things they might have seen or learned on their field trip. Drawings that were done at the Microscope Station are distributed to the teachers, along with a brief evaluation sheet for the teachers to fill out upon their return to school. If they have not received them during their pre-site visit, each student is given a “Birds of the Ballona Wetlands” booklet, which contains illustrations of and information about 43 species of birds common to the wetlands. This gives every child their very own starter field guide, something that is probably not commonly found in their homes. Thanks are exchanged all around, and we bid good-bye to the classes. All of the docents participate in the breakdown of the stations and storage of our equipment, and the day is done.


Although the waters look still, they are teeming with a huge variety of worms and small invertebrates just below the surface. Many of them take a brief detour to the microscope station before they are returned to the tidal channel, where they will resume their position at the beginning of the food web.

Our program hosts over two thousand students every year, primarily from “underserved” inner-city schools. The lion’s share of donations that we receive goes to our bus scholarship program. As funding cuts continue to be made to public education, the biggest hurdle to getting kids to the wetlands is transportation. In the 2011-2012 school year we were able to provide buses to twelve different groups of students, which means roughly 700 schoolchildren were able to visit who otherwise would not have had this opportunity. We are so grateful for the support of Los Angeles Audubon, Santa Monica Bay Audubon and several private donors who enable us to provide this service. I sincerely invite anyone who wants to know more about “what we do down there” to tag along on a tour. It’s fun, it’s inspiring and we are always happy to share our field trip experience with anyone who has an interest. The volunteer docents, who are the backbone of our program (we absolutely could not do it without them), would love to have a chance to thank you personally for your support, as would I.  If you would like to spend some time at Ballona with all of us and the students, I can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or (310) 301-0050. I look forward to hearing from you.


Cindy started volunteering at the Ballona Wetlands in 1999. She likes to tell her the student field trip participants that she has been coming down to Ballona since before they were born, and still sees exciting and new things almost every time that she is at the wetlands. She is currently Director for the environmental education programs at Ballona and at the LA Audubon Native Plant Garden at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. She is thrilled to be a part of Los Angeles Audubon and the wonderful learning opportunities that the Society offers to local school children.


Published Western Tanager Vol 79 No. 2 Nov/Dec 2012