EAC pushing for greater bird nesting protections

David Briggs
Alfonso Ramirez, who owns a landscaping and tree service company, removed a tree in Inverness on Tuesday. The E.A.C. is asking to limit or ban vegetation pruning for about half the year.  

The Environmental Action Committee of West Marin is advocating for stricter rules governing vegetation maintenance during bird nesting seasons. In a letter co-signed by Audubon Canyon Ranch and Point Blue, the E.A.C. argues that current vegetation practices by the county threaten crucial habitat. 

But county officials say they are already taking significant measures to protect migratory birds, and that banning maintenance during the spring and summer months, when most birds nest, may not be feasible from a safety perspective. 

For now, the West Marin environmental group is urging letters of support for an ordinance it’s now drafting. 

“Birds are already under threat from climate change, pesticides, habitat loss and other human disturbances, and so we don’t need to add vegetation issues,” Ashley Eagle-Gibbs, conservation director for the E.A.C., said. “This is an opportunity for us to do something at the local level and to tailor an initiative to this county, which is such a bird hot spot.” 

Marin County is located along the Pacific Flyway, a major flyway for migratory birds that extends from Alaska to Patagonia. And though over 54 percent of all North American birds have been sighted and recorded in Marin, the three environmental groups worry the county is not adequately stewarding this resource.

In a letter to county supervisors, they called for both an ordinance that would restrict shrub cutting, pruning and other vegetation management activities and for better compliance with existing federal and state laws to protect birds and their nests, eggs and young. 

The letter outlines three recent incidents in West Marin in which it says tree cutting harmed birds.

In spring 2016, Pacific Gas and Electric Company felled a dead bishop pine standing in striking distance of a power line. In so doing, the company destroyed an active osprey nest perched atop the tree and, according to the letter, violated two laws. 

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is a federal law that makes it unlawful to “take” listed migratory birds, including their nests, eggs and young, without a valid permit. Section 3503 of California Fish and Wildlife Code states, “It is unlawful to take, possess, or needlessly destroy the nest or eggs of any bird, except as otherwise provided by this code or any regulation made pursuant thereto.” (Osprey are a designated “species of least concern.”)

That same spring, the county removed a number of old eucalyptus trees on Nicasio Road, just south of town. The letter says an American kestrel pair—a species protected by both the federal and state laws—was nesting in a cavity in one of the trees. 

And in 2015, county workers removed and pruned an extensive amount of native vegetation along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard between Inverness and Point Reyes Station during the peak of nesting season. 

The solution, as drafted by E.A.C. and its partners? Besides urging the county to enforce the federal treaty act and the state’s Fish and Wildlife section, they are encouraging the county to create a program to educate maintenance staff, commercial arborists and other entities that conduct vegetation work about these laws.

The groups are also asking for an effective prohibition of vegetation clearing during the most critical bird nesting season, from March 1 through Aug. 1. The letter states that “exceptions could be made for imminent threats to human safety or property with review from a qualified biologist, but other maintenance should be scheduled outside the nesting season.” 

The groups also state that the county should require nesting surveys if an agency or company wants to conduct vegetation management outside approved seasons. 

And though a proposed ordinance would leave seven months to undertake most clearing projects, the letter also notes that some species, including hummingbirds, owls, jays and towhees, nest earlier, such as in mid-December. That must also be taken into account in the ordinance, the letter emphasizes.

Multiple agencies in Marin are already working to curb bird disturbances from vegetation management, said Thomas Gardali, director of Point Blue. His organization has worked with the National Park Service, the Marin Municipal Water District and others to survey for birds prior to a planned disturbance event, and has trained those agencies so they can conduct the surveys themselves. 

“These surveys are not hard, as long as you know your birds, and these agencies have been successful in implementing good practices on the lands they manage,” Mr. Gardali, who shared the E.A.C.’s concern about the cumulative impacts of maintenance, said. “The ordinance would extend these procedures to the county level.” 

John Kelly, director of conservation science for Audubon Canyon Ranch, another signatory on the letter, noted a few species of particular concern for the organization, and said the organization is already working with the county to generate awareness. 

“ACR is especially concerned about the protection of roadside songbird habitat, which requires that no cutting or other management of roadside vegetation is conducted from March through July,” he said. 

Mr. Kelly said the group recommends that “any permitted development activities near heron or egret nesting sites should be monitored by a qualified bird observer to ensure that those sites are protected from disturbance by construction or other associated human activities.” 

Avian ecologist Scott Jennings, who works for Audubon Canyon, opined that it was unclear whether the county is following federal and state regulations for protecting bird nesting habitat.

But the chief of natural resources and science for Marin County Parks and Open Space, Mishon Martin, said that the department not only complies with state and federal laws, but “goes above and beyond” them, especially during nesting season. 

During that time, the county parks department employs two seasonal biological monitors whose full-time job is spent conducting surveys prior to any trail or vegetation work. In some cases, such as with species like spotted owls or Ridgeway’s rails, they avoid working during nesting season; for other species, they might postpone work until breeding is finished. 

Ms. Martin expressed excitement about an ordinance and the prospect of working with the E.A.C., but deferred to the Board of Supervisors to decide whether that would be necessary. 

Supervisor Dennis Rodoni said he has asked all agencies involved in vegetation maintenance in the county—the Department of Public Works, Marin County Open Space District, PG&E and Caltrans—about their policies and practices, and plans to meet with them to discuss the proposal. 

“I’m currently on a fact-finding tour. We may already have the necessary rules and regulations, and so doubling down with an ordinance may not be the solution,” Supervisor Rodoni, who has so far been impressed with Parks and Open Space procedures already in place, said.

He added that a March to August hiatus for maintenance would be almost impossible from a safety perspective, especially after winters like the last one, with so much debris left by storms. 

Calls to Caltrans and the county’s Department of Public Works concerning practices and procedures were not returned by press time. PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said the company has a 15-year-old avian protection plan that details best industry practices to protect birds and nests, including a surveying procedure followed prior to starting projects. If there’s an active nest, PG&E biologists are called onsite "to determine the adequate protection measures," she said, emphasizing that the company also follows all state and local laws concerning migratory birds.

Meanwhile, Ms. Eagle-Gibbs said she and her team are working on building community support for the ordinance, and plan to follow up with the county with more specific language for the proposal. She also pointed to similar ordinances that limit vegetation activities during nesting seasons established in Redondo Beach, El Dorado County and elsewhere. 

“We’re hoping that a hard look can be taken, and if there are practices already in place and they are strong, that’s great. But let’s make sure they are strong enough and they are followed,” she said. 


This article was amended on July 17 to include a comment from PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras.