By Cindy Hardin, Director of Outdoor Education

The Los Angeles Audubon Society’s newest program, Open Wetlands at Ballona, has become a roaring success story over the past year. This event, held on the first Saturday morning of each month, is another way that we seek to fulfill our mission to educate the public about birds, wildlife and conservation.

LAAS plays host to thousands of school children on field trips every year at the Ballona salt marsh, and we receive many requests from teachers, parent chaperones and the children themselves to come back again to visit. Passersby who see the students arrive on field trip days also express an interest in visiting Ballona. In March, 2015, LAAS launched “Open Wetlands” to respond to this high level of interest in our local wetlands. It was decided to model these Saturdays on the student field trips, and to include the same activities to the public that is experienced by our young visitors. These activities are designed to provide an in depth look at this last coastal salt marsh to be found within the city limits. The goal was to go beyond a simple guided walk, and to use equipment that helps to highlight the thriving ecosystem found at Ballona.

Our Saturday visitors are encouraged to check out binoculars in order to better view the many bird species found at the marsh. They also make a stop at our Microscope Station. At the microscopes they can view the small aquatic invertebrates that are found in our tidal channels. We never know what we will find in these samples; the star of our January Open Wetlands was a worm commonly known as the “Spaghetti Worm”; check out the photo below, and you can guess why that is its common name!

This Ciriformia luxuriosa was the star of the Microscope Station at the January Open Wetlands. Its common name is Spaghetti Worm-it’s easy to see why, isn’t it?!! | Photo Credit: Beto ArroyoThis Ciriformia luxuriosa was the star of the Microscope Station at the January Open Wetlands. Its common name is Spaghetti Worm-it’s easy to see why, isn’t it?!! | Photo Credit: Beto Arroyo

After a look through the microscopes, it’s time to take a walk through the wetlands. The same trained naturalist volunteers that staff our field trips are on hand to guide the public through the marsh. First stop is the platform which overlooks the tidal channels. This is prime viewing for all kinds of birds. Perhaps we will be alerted to the rattling cry of the Kingfisher as she peruses the channel for a fishy snack. If the tide is low, we are almost guaranteed to see a Snowy Egret or two poking in the mudflats for a meal. Above the Eucalyptus grove to the east is the place to look for soaring Red-tailed Hawks and Kestrels, especially as the morning warms up and the birds take advantage of rising warm air to ride the thermal currents. We sometimes are surprised by seed foraging birds on the ground, like the White Crowned Sparrows, as we walk along the trestle. Our January Open Wetlands saw an extra special winter visitor on the Trestle Trail: a Burrowing Owl! Attendees were thrilled to see the Owl, and she calmly posed for her photo shoot, and in fact remained in the same burrow for several days.

The Burrowing Owl is one of the smallest species of owls. True to its name, it takes over the burrows of other animals, like the abundant Ground Squirrels that we have at Ballona. This owl was another surprise guest at the January Open Wetlands. It sunned itself all morning, perched next to a burrow along the old Pacific Railway Trestle. | Photo Credit: Ray Valencia
The Burrowing Owl is one of the smallest species of owls. True to its name, it takes over the burrows of other animals, like the abundant Ground Squirrels that we have at Ballona. This owl was another surprise guest at the January Open Wetlands. It sunned itself all morning, perched next to a burrow along the old Pacific Railway Trestle. | Photo Credit: Ray Valencia

Next is a walk through the dune habitat, as we make our way to Ballona Creek. Coastal Dune habitat is probably even more rare than wetlands (California has lost 90% of its historical wetlands!). A high functioning coastal wetland is a mosaic of different habitats that includes upland areas, grasslands and dunes. The dune system at Ballona has been carefully restored, over decades, by hand removal of introduced and invasive plants. The dunes now abound with native plants and wildflowers, including Coastal Dune Buckwheat, host plant for the endangered El Segundo Blue butterfly. As spring hits its stride, this area is abuzz with all manner of insects, and the lizards and birds that eat them.

Once at the creek our visitors walk along the levee to the tidal gate, where they are met by more of our trained naturalists and their trusty spotting scopes. The scopes are trained on various “birds du jour”. The Osprey might be perched on a distant post, Avocets could be seen on the mudflats, and winter and early spring means that hundreds of Black Bellied Plovers will be roosting on the distant salt panne. Some folks linger at the spotting scopes, as different species come and go throughout the morning, following the rhythm of the tides.

The return walk through the dunes is the time where one has a better chance of seeing lizards, or, if you’re lucky, a Gopher Snake. The warmth of the later morning sun draws these reptiles out of their hiding places beneath the Dune Lupine and Deerweed, and sharp-eyed observers can spot them as they move through the sand.

This program will see its one year anniversary on Saturday, March 5th. This event has grown from its first date, which saw just over 20 attendees, to become a real “happening”. We now regularly see over 60 visitors at each Open Wetlands. Clearly there is a keen interest of behalf of the general public to visit and learn more about this State Ecological Reserve. It’s a delight to do our part to help fulfill this need, and we hope that you will join us for a wetlands walk on one of these first Saturdays.

The National Parks Service mobile Visitors Center, will be at Open Wetlands on Saturday, March 5th.  Talk to an NPS Ranger and learn more about our National Parks!
The National Parks Service mobile Visitors Center, will be at Open Wetlands on Saturday, March 5th.  Talk to an NPS Ranger and learn more about our National Parks!

To celebrate our first anniversary, we will have some special added attractions on Saturday, March 5th. The National Park Service (NPS) will be in the adjacent parking lot with their mobile visitors’ center, LA Ranger Troca. Learn more about our National Parks as NPS celebrates its own anniversary-100 years of informing and inspiring the millions who have visited these national treasures! And Stacey Vigallon, Audubon employee and Scientific Illustrator, will be offering a guided Sketch-the-Wetlands tour (drawing materials provided!) from 10:00 to 11:30, giving guests the opportunity to explore the wetlands as artist naturalists. Open Wetlands takes place between 9 am and Noon on the first Saturday of each month. Visitors can drop by at any time during those hours, and do a quick visit or stay for the entire morning. We encourage everyone to come down to Ballona and take this opportunity to learn about this beautiful spot and really get to know this very special habitat in the midst of our very big city. The wetlands are waiting!

If you need more information, please contact Cindy Hardin at (310) 301-0050 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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