If you were to wander through some of the open spaces left on the Penninsula, you might be lucky enough to hear the faint "wew" of a California gnatcatcher, a four inch long songbird. The males are grey-blue with a black tail, and females are gray-brown.
Surviving in the Coastal Sage Scrub (CSS) habitats in California and Northern Baja, these birds are highly territorial and mate for life. As the bird forrages for insects through the scrub, they wave their tail and the resins from sage brush linger on their feathers giving them a resinous smell.
The males have black "caps" on their heads during breeding and nesting season (mid-February to mid-August) then lose their caps when they molt. Although these birds forage in various landscapes, they center their territories and reproductive lifes in CSS habitats at elevations below 1,500 feet.
Paired adult gnatcatchers do not migrate beyond a one to two acre territory all year. The males call from the tallest shrubs and fiercely defend their territory and their mates from other males. If another male invades, the two combatants chase each other, snapping their bills and clawing each other while in flight. Females can be equally territorial with another intruding female. Most gnatcatchers mate for two to five years, but sometimes another bird will succeed in intruding into the "marriage" of another couple and the ousted bird will search for another mate.
Both male and female share in the tasks of building a nest, raising and feeding the young and driving off potential predators. The female lays, on the average, three to four aquamarine eggs. In the following two weeks, both parents trade 20 to 40 minute shifts alternating from incubating the eggs and foraging for food.
After two weeks, the eggs that are viable hatch into red and black, nearly shapeless blobs with legs. The nestlings are still exothermic, unable to produce their own body heat, and the parents take turns keeping them warm and bringing insects to their nest.
Within another two weeks, the young are ready to fly and leave the nest. During the spring and
early summer, both parents continue to feed their fledglings for two to four weeks after they leave the nest, relying on the rich, diverse insect populations that thrive in coastal sage scrub.
The greatest threat to the survival of this bird is during their first year. The young often fall victim to nest predators such as rodents, snakes, scrub-jays, road runners, ferral or domestic cats. They also can have their nests destroyed by bulldozing activity.
In order to survive this nest predation and destruction, most pairs make repeated nesting attempts even while while feeding their brood of chicks (who may be only two weeks out of the nest)-producing one, sometimes two, broods in a season. But after three or four weeks of feeding, the parents drive the young off their territory.
With the shrinking world of coastal sage scrub lost to development, most young only move no farther than two miles away putting even more stress on their survival.
PROTECTION OF THE GNATCATCHER
The gnatcatcher is at risk of extintion due to a disatrous decline in natural CSS habitat. Of the 2.5 million acres of CSS and chaparral that once stretched from Ventura Co. to the Mexican border, only 10 percent remains. The little CSS left on the Palos Verdes Pennisula is one of the last habitats for this little bird that remains in the L.A. basin.
Around 1990 the California gnatcatcher was about to be added to the federal list of endangered species. In order to head off a potentially nasty conflict between landowners, conservationists and resource agencies with the gnatcatcher's endangered listing, this little bird sparked all parties to begin hammering out a Natural Community Conservation Program (NCCP) to preserve large contiguous parcels of land that would have a greater habitat value than piecemeal conservation under the Endagered Species Act. The NCCP was made state law in 1991.
On Aug. 4, 1999, a federal court ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a plan that will protect the gnatcatcher's habitat in Riverside, San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange counties. Under the ruling by District Court Judge Stephen Wilson, the Fish & Wildlife Service has 60 days to map the critical habitat for the gnatcatcher.
Within the special habitat areas - which could include more than 124,000 acres in Southern California - laws protecting the gnatcatcher will be changed, some say tightened. The bird and its home will be protected as "critical habitat" within the scope of the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
According to Fish & Wildlife spokeswoman Joan Jewett, the critical habitat designation does not apply to all projects, and it is not the same as creating a wildlife refuge for the animal. Jewett said the scope of the added protection is limited. Only projects that are funded by taxpayer dollars, such as the highway projects, or are on federal lands, or require a federal permit, will have to obtain special permits for projects that destroy gnatcatcher habitat.
In some sense, the court's ruling did not come as a surprise, as Fish & Wildlife had in February - because of earlier litigation - decided to set aside habitat areas for the gnatcatcher. At this time, however, the agency set a June 2000 date for implementing its decision. The court order puts a time limit on an action the agency already agreed to take. Andrew Wetzler, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, the environmental group that sued to get critical habitat for the gnatcatcher at the time the bird was listed in 1993, called the added protection "certainly a victory for the gnatcatcher." Leeona Klippstein of the environmental group Spirit of the Sage in Pasadena agreed.
"The gnatcatcher is the canary in the coal mine of Southern California. It is an indicator of how healthy the ecosystem is for all of us. We are all dependent on it. Its critical habitat should have been designated from day one."
Jewett said she disagrees that the ruling will provide the gnatcatcher with added protection, though she said it will definitely tax the Fish & Wildlife's limited resources. She said this could stall listings of new species, already backlogged because of a lack of funds.
"Southern California is the hotbed of extinction issues in the United States," Jewett said. "For one, it is a naturally rich and diverse area. There has been such phenomenal and rapid development. There really is an extinction crisis. But we feel that when a species is listed, it is already protected,"
The Fish & Wildlife Service, the agency charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act, has a 1999 budget of $802 million. Of this amount, $5.7 million is set aside for listings and delistings. Only $979,000 is set aside for critical habitat efforts nationwide.
Thanks to Dana Kamada and Leeona Klipstein for their source of information for this article.