By: Olivia Jenkins
My name is Olivia and I am the Volunteer Coordinator at Earthroots. I am currently studying Conservation and Restoration Science at UC Irvine, and have a passion for birds. For the past month, I have been collecting nesting data by paddle boat at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh in Los Angeles, where I live, to support endangered species conservation. I want to share my moving experience with you through a poem I wrote and some videos of the marsh. Enjoy!
Mist blankets the marsh surface
A pair of geese glides right through
Blurry until they emerge onto the shoreline
Im half asleep
But the reeds are alive
Red winged black birds with flashy feather sing from all around
High pitched and energetic
Grackles swoop by our rowboat
Squawking, defending, warning
we are guests, at times unwelcome ones
So we don’t stay too long near nests
But we train our eyes to follow
A tail flick, a hop, a peck
Our ears to notice each sound
Rustling, splashing, wings beating
We look for signs of nest building
Of eggs incubating
What seems like a messy heap of mud from far away
Is a Pied Billed Grebe nest with purposefully placed dead vegetation to hide the eggs below
Slowly, we slide along a stand of cattails and bulrush in the middle of the marsh,
so tall the stalks lean over and form an arc over the water.
The tips brush against our faces as we paddle by and bursts of pollen yellow our shirts
I caught a glimpse of an elusive Least Bittern foraging at the reeds edge
In the same moment, it disappeared
Was it really there?
As we round the corner, a female Red-Winged Black Bird carries a long strand of dried reed in her beak, hopping expertly from reed to reed until she teachers her nest, her work of art.
She wraps the strand of grass around the reeds, creating a bowl-shaped woven basket hanging above the water, supported by sturdy stalks.
Once she has left the nest to gather more materials, we move closer to collect our data:
How deep is the water beneath the nest? (1 meter)
Are there eggs incubating? (Yes! Three speckled eggs)
What plant species is the nest built on? (Bulrush)
How thick is the vegetation? (Medium density)
And so on
I snap a picture of the nest to accompany the data and laugh
Because the nest is not visible in the picture
It blends in too well with the bending reeds, a small brown spot
We will survey the nests twice a week every week for four months
This data is needed to continue protecting the Marsh
To make sure these birds have a safe, healthy habitat for generations to come
I remind myself this as my arms ache from rowing against the mid morning wind
I am witnessing new life in the making
Smiling, I dip the paddle into the green water, pushing it behind
Back to shore
Unzipping my life vest, I already miss being out on the water
But I will be back next week
To witness the mist melt away and the reeds come to life
And discover hidden hope
There all along
Returning to the Ballona Freshwater Marsh each week to conduct nesting surveys has given me a deeper appreciation and understanding of its intricate ecosystem. It has also been a place of hope and familiarity during a time of grief and uncertainty. It has been magical to witness new life in the making through observing birds nesting. I can’t wait to see the eggs hatch and chicks emerge from the nests their parents worked hard to make comfortable. Sometimes it is hard to find hope, especially when many of us are grieving. I am learning that sometimes the hope is there, I may just have to look a little harder for it, or trust that it’s there even if I can’t find it. Just like the birds and nests hiding in the thick reeds. I can’t see them, but there are subtle signs that prove they are. I look forward to becoming even more attuned to birds and to signs of hope.
I love being the Volunteer Coordinator at Earthroots because I get to witness people (me included) learn Big Oak Canyon more intimately each time they visit for classes or volunteer days. Volunteer days typically occur the first week of every month and are designed for all ages to enjoy. Those who attend regularly may start to notice small differences like they would notice a friend’s new haircut — new flowers blooming, different bird songs, a change in temperature. Visiting Big Oak Canyon can be a hopeful, renewing experience. It sure has been for me. There are many wonders to discover each time. I look forward to connecting deeper with nature alongside you and your families. Together we can find hope in knowing we are all connected to each other and this beautiful earth!