by Marcia Hanscom
This time of year I love the changing colors of our native buckwheat species. Beautiful ivory and delicate pinks dissolve to rust and reddish-hues that grace the hillsides and sand dunes on the Los Angeles coast. There is an interesting story about the buckwheat and how one butterfly is rather finicky and partial to only one of the buckwheat species. Maybe that is part of why this butterfly is so rare.
Recently, the Los Angeles World Airport (LAWA) staff invited Roy van de Hoek and me from the Ballona Institute to attend a briefing and field trip to the coastal sand dunes that are directly under the flight path of LAX just west of the runways. (Roy is a Conservation Biologist and one of the most knowledgeable naturalists on the Los Angeles coast.) We were grateful to be included in this special tour, as since 9-11 (2001), LAWA has kept most of the public out of the area where imperiled species still thrive.
This sand dune area was created over thousands of years by the large watershed of the historical flows from the confluence of the Los Angeles River and several other streams before the river's force was split up and much of the river diverted to Long Beach. The south bay dune complex stretched from the river's mouth at what is now Playa del Rey south along the beach city areas, nearly as far as the Palos Verdes Peninsula. In fact, most of this sand dune complex is still there, albeit covered with some asphalt and concrete in Manhattan and Hermosa Beaches. One can notice easily, upon close observation, the obvious hills that once hosted Dune or Coastal Buckwheat, Dune Goldenbush and Dune Lupine, as well as many other native plant species that evolved growing in the sandy grained soils of our coastal dunes.
Of course, the animals that lived in these sand dunes were also abundant, and it is one of those animals that was the focus of this particular foray into the LAWA-managed dunes. The El Segundo Blue Butterfly - the first-ever insect included on the federal endangered species list in 1976- was out and flying during this recent field trip. It is only a short time in the summer months during which people can see this beautiful, tiny insect mostly interested in a special species of native buckwheat.
While we heard that the butterflies are doing extremely well at the site, we also learned from the expert who has long been studying these diminutive beauties that this year, without as much rainfall, did not produce as many young, compared to the previous few years. Dr. Richard Arnold explained that, with less rain, there are fewer flowers on the Buckwheat that is the focus of this butterfly's attention. And with fewer flowers, fewer butterflies.
These butterflies feed on and lay their eggs on a species of coastal buckwheat that is so specific to this area that it was once confused with another buckwheat species that actually can cause harm to the El Segundo Blue Butterfly and is still not entirely eradicated from the Playa del Rey Dunes sitting beneath planes roaring overheard as they take off out over the Pacific Ocean. In other words, a native buckwheat plant in one location may not be the appropriate one for another. The buckwheat that was planted in error about 20 years ago attracts a butterfly and other pollinators that compete with the El Segundo Blue Butterfly for territory, and since the El Segundo Blue Butterfly is protected by the Endangered Species Act, the competing plant species must be removed.
Historical ecology of the area, as well as soils, shade and other factors that inform restoration ecologists which specific plant species to use can make all the difference in whether or not the other components of a particular ecosystem will thrive. The native plants that have been planted in years past do not need irrigation, thus saving the city's airport division water, energy and money.
The 200-acre El Segundo Blue Butterfly Preserve is located on the southern portion of the Playa del Rey Dunes which once hosted homes that were later bought out by LAWA as an expanding airport's needs rubbed up against a community that increasingly became weary of noise and pollution, and as jets got bigger along with the runways and air travel population. It is a miracle that these butterflies even still existed, but a small portion of the dunes - about 43 acres - were left virtually undisturbed by humans or their structures. So, when the residents of Sunridge left, some not by their own will, there was a chance for recovery of this butterfly.
Another native, rare species was discussed while on the tour. Earlier this year, The Argonaut reported on the sighting by naturalist Tracy Drake of several California Gnatcatchers, songbirds that are on the federal endangered species list and, therefore, protected by law. http://argonautnews.com/conservationists-happily-welcome-threatened-bird-back-to-the-area/
Since that time, it was reported, again by The Argonaut, that several young were observed in the nest.http://argonautnews.com/playa-del-rey-births-of-gnatcatcher-babies-surprise-and-delight-conservationists/
We learned on the recent LAWA tour that a total of seven of these California Gnatcatchers have now been observed at the Playa del Rey Dunes, including the young that fledged from the nest.
Soon more land in this significant, beautiful sand dune will be the focus of restoration, and planting native plants that will help the El Segundo Blue Butterfly and the California Gnatcatcher, as well as other imperiled species, will be taking place. This restoration is happening because of a settlement of a lawsuit between LAWA and those who have long opposed expansion of the airport. While there are still questions remaining about the future of LAX expansion, the community-engaged restoration of the dunes, which will involve planting of the correct native plants that will help the native fauna - including the Coastal Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium) for the endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly - is moving forward.
© 2013, Marcia Hanscom & Ballona Institute