Drone intrusions leading to birds abandoning thousands of eggs at protected Bolsa Chica reserve

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (KABC) -- Thousands of elegant tern eggs were left abandoned over the last month at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve after two drones crashed into their nest.

The safe place for 800 species of plants and animals, terrestrial and aquatic, is under threat.

The most graphic display of increased vandalism at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is seen in a heartbreaking photograph.

The photo shows 1,500 elegant tern eggs left abandoned because of illegal drone use.

"In my career, I have never seen such devastation, so that was really hard," said Melissa Loebl, the environmental scientist reserve manager with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

According to management at the reserve, COVID-19 has more people recreating outdoors, nearly doubling the number of visitors there over the last year.

Human visitors are welcome.

"We've noticed a significant increase in the use of the land, including dogs, bikes and drones," Loebl said.

The problem? All those things aren't allowed.

Marc Dickey has visited the reserve over the last 25 years. Dickey said he has tried to spread word of the rules.

"I try to stop people from doing bad things in here. I usually just get cussed out," Dickey said.

Dogs chase after birds and their droppings can infect wildlife. People on bikes go off trail, damaging habitats. Drones disturb birds and crash.

That's how these thousands of eggs ended up without mom or dad to incubate them.

According to officers with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, in the last month, two drones crashed in the tern nest, then humans added to the disruption when they had to recover the drones.

Three thousand elegant terns left.

While Eyewitness News covered this story Thursday, our cameras caught two drones flying over the area in just a 10-minute span.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife Officer Nicholas Molsberry cited one of the operators, but the second was was not located.

"There's no warnings issued on this property because of the importance to the ecological reserve here, everyone gets a citation that violates these posted signs here," Molsberry said.

Management at the reserve plan to start a land stewardship program over the next six to 12 months. The goal will be education, preservation and safety from highly-trained docents who will interact directly with visitors.

Copyright © 2022 KABC Television, LLC. All rights reserved.