The Meaning of Hahamongna

The original settlers of the region were sometimes called the Hahamongna Indians. The word means "Flowing Waters, Fruitful Valley" in the native Tongva language.

Hahamongna News

Title:

Rare, endangered bird spotted in Pasadena, San Gabriel River

Subtitle:

Date:

2012-10-01

Author:

Steve Scauzillo, SGVN

Publication:

San Gabriel Valley Tribune

Content:

Mark Hunter, right, of La Canada and a member of the Pasadena Audubon Society and Laura Garett of Pasadena, Conservation Chair of Pasadena Audubon Society, looking for birds at Hahamongna in Pasadena Tuesday, September 18, 2012. (SGVN/Photo by Walt Mancini)

It's a small, gray songbird that's so defenseless it can't even protect its young from marauding cowbirds who devour its chicks and take over its nest.
Yet, the least bell's vireo - a shy bird found only in California's diminishing wetlands - has miraculously fought off extinction and could spark a SoCal-style face-off between developers and conservationists.

Two sightings of the bird in the San Gabriel Valley this summer have conservationists happily canceling the bird's obituary. The least bell's vireo has been on the federal endangered species list since 1986.

One bird was spotted along the San Gabriel River between Duarte and Azusa in late April. A pair - most likely a mother and baby - was found on July 15 at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and local birding groups.

At both locations, ornithologists and local birders who keep detailed records of birds species in the area, say the endangered bird had not been seen in these locations in decades.

The two least bell's vireos seen at Hahamongna during several weeks in July and August could put a stop to plans by the city to build a second soccer field at the park.

"This is very early (in the park project), but (the bird sighting) does provide a heads up," said Jane Hendron, a spokesperson for U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Carlsbad Office, which has jurisdiction in Los Angeles County.
The birds may also play havoc with the Los Angeles County Public Works Department's plans to scoop 2.4 million cubic yards of sediment from behind the nearby Devil's Gate Dam. The sediment removal is needed to make sure there is sufficient space in the dam to hold back water.


The least Bell's vireo seen here in the willows of the Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena on July 15, 2012, was the first time the endangered bird was seen in Pasadena in decades. (Photo courtesy of David A. Bell)

Although no development plans loom for the San Gabriel River, the bird's presence could also affect future sluicing projects by the county for clearing debris out of upstream San Gabriel Canyon dams.

Laura Garrett, conservation chair of the Pasadena Audubon Society, reported the siting to Fish and Wildlife. During a recent tour, she recalled where she and fellow birders saw the least bell's vireo a few months ago.

"The birds were seen mostly in this area," she said, pointing to the marshy region between JPL and the dam. "That is exactly where they city wants to put the soccer field."

They saw a parent bird and a begging juvenile, mouth open, looking for food from mama bird. The sighting is significant because it could mean the birds were nesting there, something not seen in Hahamongna park or behind the Devil's Gate Dam for decades.

Artist renderings of Least Bell's Vireo's, a rare bird that is listed as endangered on the U.S. EPA's Endangered Species Act. (SGVN/Photo by Walt Mancini)

"The birds being at Hahamongna - they weren't there even five years ago. That is definitely a recent thing," confirmed Kimball Garrett, ornithologist and collections manager for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and a recognized Southern California bird expert.

Laura Garrett, no relation to Kimball, and Fish and Wildlife say the birds are back because the habitat they like is back: mulefat and willows in scrub-like alluvial fan landscape. These plants sprung up quickly after the wet winters of 2010 and 2011.

To keep the birds, one must keep the habitat.

"You can't mitigate for the least bell's vireo," she said.

Also in the species' favor are delays in both the new soccer field project and in the clearing of sediment from behind the dam about a half-mile south. No work meant the vireo's habitat flourished.

"The best thing that has happened here is nothing," Laura Garrett said. She fears that a new field with a manicured lawn and herbicides will keep the endangered birds away next spring.

"I don't want to discourage these little birds from coming back here," she said.

Years of effort paying off

The recent sightings are just the latest success stories in the bird's recent history.

Actually, the vireo is recovering in Southern California due to years of habitat restoration and cowbird trapping at Prado Basin in the Chino-Corona area.

In 1986, there were 19 pairs of the least bell's viero in Prado Basin. That number was up to 219 pairs in 2006, according to a joint report from the Orange County Water District and Fish and Wildlife.

Brown-headed cowbirds invade the birds' nests and take it over, often forcing the least bell's vireo to raise the cowbird's young. So to give the species a chance to recover, that needed to stop. Biologists began trapping cowbirds and removing them from Prado Basin.

They also began removing arundo, an invasive plant that harmed the birds and prevented mulefat and willows - their natural habitat - from springing up, said Hendron, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It's possible, Hendron said, that the least bell's vireo seen in the San Gabriel Valley were born in Prado Basin.

"They could be coming north from here," she said.

Success has been slow but steady.

In 1986, when the bird was first listed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's endangered species list, there were 19 least bell's vireo territories in Prado Basin, Hendron said. In 2004, that number exceeded 800 territories. (A territory is how much land a bird would use).

In Los Angeles County, from 1985 to 1987, biologists found only six vireo territories. From 1991 to 1995, that number dropped to four, but increased to 13 at the end of 2000 and 56 territories by the end of 2005, Hendron said.

Because of its increasing numbers in Southern California and as far north as San Luis Obisbo, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is recommending the EPA downlist the species from endangered to threatened.

"We want to recognize the fact that this species is doing better. That it is recovering," Hendron said.

No decision has been made on the downlisting, she said.

Success breeds success

Kimball Garrett saw the bird in a willow tree in the wild portion of the San Gabriel River on a bird walk in April sponsored by the Duarte Historical Museum.

"The success in Prado Basin has allowed them to colonize and propagate in other areas," he said.

"They are the offspring of these birds. They've begun to disperse somewhat. They look for the next best available habitat," he explained.

Kimball Garrett said about 25 or 30 pairs have been found in the Hansen Dam area in the northeast San Fernando Valley as well.

"That is one of the places that they've colonized," he said.

He said he has also seen the bird in the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area.

Whether the bird's presence can stop a development, such as the park project in Pasadena, is unclear.

It must be considered in the city's environmental impact report.

Hendron said more study is needed to determine if the birds are there only temporarily. If so, then perhaps the project would be delayed until they leave.

"We are able to work with the project proponents successfully in various developments," she said.

Laura Garrett says many people need to get used to the look of the scruffy looking habitat of some of the last remaining riparian areas, such as the Hahamongna natural area.

It's a landscape that animals and birds like perhaps more than people.

"These birds don't want manicured lawns," she said.

steve.scauzillo@sgvn.com

626-962-8811, ext. 2237