Roughly 1,500 elegant tern eggs were abandoned at a southern California nesting island after a rogue drone crash-landed and scared off thousands of birds, the Orange County Register and New York Times reported this week.
Two drones were flown illegally over the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a stretch of protected coastal wetlands in Southern California, on May 13, according to the Register. When one of the drones went down on the reserve’s largest nesting island, several thousand terns fled their ground nests, fearing an attack from predators.
Around this time each year, the island would be covered with terns preparing for their eggs to hatch. But there won’t be any hatchlings this year; instead, the island is littered with eggshells.
Environmental scientist and reserve manager Melissa Loebl said it’s the largest-scale abandonment of eggs the coastal site has ever seen, the Register reports. The elegant tern, which is classified as a near-threatened species, is among roughly 800 species of plants and animals that rely on the reserve as a critical habitat.
In an interview with the Times, Loebl called the scene “awful to see.”
“In my 20 years of working with wildlife and in the field, I have never seen such devastation,” she said. “My gut is wrenching.”
California Department of Fish and Wildlife officer Nicholas Molsberry told the Times that no one has come to claim the drone in the three weeks since it crashed. He added that he’s seeking a search warrant to allow him to review its memory card and hopefully trace it back to whoever was operating the drone that day. If a suspect is found, authorities plan to pursue misdemeanor criminal charges related to the needless destruction of eggs or nests, the harassment of wildlife, and the use of a drone in a closed ecological reserve, according to the outlet.
Speaking with the Register, Molsberry said drone activity has become a huge headache for the reserve, which is more frequently targeted than other state lands in Orange County because of its highly visible nesting areas.
“It’s ironic,” he said. “Drone owners are attracted by the nesting colonies of birds, and then their actions destroy it.”
Besides drones, the wetlands have also been increasingly disturbed by off-leash dogs and bikes, both of which are prohibited. With mass closures due to the coronavirus pandemic driving more people to explore the outdoors, the Bolsa Chica reserve saw its visitor count jump from 60,000 in 2019 to 100,000 in 2020, according to the Orange County Register.
Loebl told the Times that while California law prohibits drones within the reserve, she hopes this disaster will prompt the Federal Aviation Administration to issue a federal rule against operating drones in the area.