By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
“She’s confused,” Hanscom snipes. “Just because a bird lands on a plant, it doesn’t mean it needs the plant to live.”
On the first Sunday in December, van de Hoek conducted a public tour of the Ballona Valley to see, among other creatures, the bufflehead ducks, one of many migratory birds that winter in Southern California or pass through on the way south. Thanks to his “legal issues” — and by extension, thanks to Mira Tweti — he had three dozen attendees, including Los Angeles City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl.
“It was a record,” he told me later. “We try to get in the papers every month, but we don’t always succeed. Now it seems like everyone remembered I’m here again.”
The black-and-white buffleheads are tiny, the smallest diving sea ducks in North America; the Indians called them “spirit ducks” because they could disappear so quickly, and for so long, underwater. Like many migrating birds who sojourn in Southern California on their way to parts farther south, they fly thousands of miles to be here — in part because this human-altered landscape reminds them of the rocky shores of their homes.
“We’ve now had a 60-year equilibrium in which wildlife could adapt to this urban ecosystem,” van de Hoek says. “It’s important to acknowledge the bounty of it.”
On this day, Del Rey Lagoon appears overrun by marbled godwits, gangly dark birds with sewing-needle beaks that have flown here across the Rockies. Farther along, on Ballona Creek, skim hundreds of tiny dowitchers pitching in concert. Beyond that, pugnacious harriers battle other birds for their nests, gaggles of Canada geese scream in their melodramatic panic, and flocks of mergansers calmly float on the water, changing direction abruptly and seemingly without intent.
Then there was the whimbrel.
“The whimbrel is a sandpiper that comes from where the land is frozen and the skies are dark,” van de Hoek intones as his troops catch their balance on the slope of the channel. “And when the whimbrel, who has spent his early months in the Arctic, gets down here, he says to himself, ‘I want to be somewhere that reminds me of home. And this is what he finds: A concrete channel covered with rocks and mussel shells. This looks like Alaska to a whimbrel. So he stays.”
It was Tweti, the woman who kisses her parrot and talks to geese, who told me that all these birds count Ballona as “the 18th pearl” on the Pacific Flyway, a major route that runs north to south from the northern islands of Alaska to the tip of South America at Patagonia. She had brought those migrating geese water one day because she worried the lagoon was too salty and polluted by human garbage and dog shit, and she cared desperately for their welfare. And had she and van de Hoek not misunderstood each other so profoundly that day, she might have been among the three dozen other participants on the banks of the lagoon with him, counting the birds and marveling as van de Hoek — in the end, a bird lover as passionate as Tweti — tells the story of how the whimbrel came to love the concrete shores of this urban creek.
Instead, Tweti fears the fight will go on, and there will only be a sad end for her beloved tree.
“Do you want to know why I talked to you?” she asks. “I talked to you because I worry that he’s going to try again. He’s going to try to kill the tree, and this time he’s going to get it right.
“And that,” she concludes, her voice trembling, “that would be a tragedy.”