Whittaker says no to birders eager to see rare gnatcatcher on site

California Gnatcatcher. photo courtesy US Fish & Wildlife .
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Local bird watchers eager to get onto the Whittaker-Bermite cleanup site for a glimpse of the rarely seen California gnatcatcher will have to track the threatened bird down elsewhere as cleanup managers are nixing the notion of a safari, citing safety concerns.

A month ago, Hassan Amini, project manager with the cleanup firm GSI Environmental Inc., told stakeholders attending a multi-jurisdictional meeting at Santa Clarita City Hall that a biologist monitoring the cleanup recently spotted evidence of the threatened bird, prompting the shutdown of bulldozers and trucks busy on the site.

News of the sighting quickly caught the attention of “birders” who jumped on the idea of joining the biologist on a revisit to the site.

Eric G. Lardier is the senior vice president of Meggitt-USA Inc, representing the Whittaker Corp.

“I don’t really want birders in this area of the site,” Lardier said Thursday.

Safety concern

“It is steep and there is no way to ensure safety,” he said. “We allow visitors to the site for community outreach, but they are supervised visits, and the visitors don’t move outside of designated safe areas as directed.”

And the elusive gnatcatcher is not on a designated safe area.

Lardier noted it was his understanding that the “nesting season is over until springtime, so there probably aren’t any of these birds on site now anyway.”

Nevertheless, news of the tiny bird being spotted on Whittaker-Bermite land last month as cleanup crews approached the cleanup’s year-end finish line excited local birders.

Not found

Brian Bielfelt leads the annual Christmas bird count for the Santa Clarita Valley — a day-long event during which birdwatchers count every bird they can, in collaboration with birders nationwide.

“The California gnatcatcher is a species we’ve searched for year-after-year and not found,” he wrote in an email to The Signal, hoping to get in touch with Whittaker’s biologist as “the best person to reach out to.”

“This species has not consistently had a breeding population until a recent discovery in Castaic,” he wrote. “In fact, some have proposed the winter temperatures in SCV are too cold to have a permanent, healthy population.”

“I am hoping they might help me understand where they are located on the site, which would help me determine if we can potentially view/find them during our Christmas bird count from publicly accessible locations,” he wrote

On Thursday, Lardier said no.

The California gnatcatcher, according to environmentalists manning the website Paloverdes.com, is a songbird about 4 inches long that survives in coastal sage scrub habitats in California.

They are highly territorial and mate for life. Once paired, gnatcatchers do not normally migrate beyond a 1- to 2-acre territory all year.

As described on the website: “The greatest threat to the survival of this bird is during their first year. The young often fall victim to nest predators such as rodents, snakes, scrub-jays, road runners, feral or domestic cats. They also can have their nests destroyed by bulldozing activity.”

Extinction risk

The gnatcatcher, according to environmentalists, is at risk of extinction due to a drastic decline in natural sage scrub habitat.

Of the 2.5 million acres of such habitat and chaparral that once stretched from Ventura County to the Mexican border, only 10 percent remains, they report on their website.

Cleanup manager Hassan Amini said Wednesday: “After the sighting of a pair of gnatcatchers at the Bermite site in early 2018, we have not seen any occurrence of gnatcatchers at the Bermite site.

“Nonetheless, we had reported that one-time occurrence to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and have been working with both those agencies to ensure protection of the gnatcatcher and habitat, if they are sighted again.”

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