A protected nesting island has been left devastated after a reckless drone user scared birds into abandoning around 3,000 eggs.
Scientists at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in California said the abandonment was one of the largest they had ever seen at the site, used by thousands of elegant terns migrating from Central and South America each year.
Two drones were flown over reserve in May and one of them crashed in the wetlands, according to local media, prompting the birds to believe they were under attack by a predator.
Thousands of chicks which would otherwise have been overseen by their parents as they hatch this month have been left to the elements and predators, with much of the sand already littered with empty eggshells.
Elegant terns are not aggressive towards predators and often rely on dense nests, often 20-30cm apart, to protect their young.
Melissa Loebl, the environmental scientist reserve manager with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told ABC7 News: ‘In my career, I have never seen such devastation, so that was really hard.’
Ms Loebl said the pandemic has driven a rise in drone activity, dogs and bicycle use – all forbidden in the wetlands – as people flock to outdoor spaces.
Last year saw some 100,000 people visit the reserve, up from 60,000 the previous year.
Speaking to the Orange County Register, she added: ‘We’ve seen a significant increase in dogs, particularly off-leash.
‘That’s devastating for wildlife and this is prime nesting season. The dogs chase the birds and the birds abandon their nests.’
Fish and Wildlife warden Nick Molsberry said wealthy residents moving into new multimillion-dollar homes on a hillside overlooking the north end of the wetlands were also causing problems.
He said: ‘It’s residents that sometimes feel entitled, that feel they should be able to use the land as they like.’
Authorities are ramping up efforts to enforce the rules on the reserve, which is used as a home or migration site by 800 species of plants and animals.
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