Marshland Magic


Ballona Wetlands, Freshwater Marsh, Photo by Kathy Vilim, California

Ballona Wetlands Freshwater Marsh, Photo Kathy Vilim

Standing at the street corner, the signal light changing, I cross over CA Hwy Route 1 (locally called Lincoln Blvd) leaving behind the long line of  new vertical home construction and picking up a trail into the Ballona wetlands to the west.  Immediately, I am in another world, one of Willows & Sycamore trees, all looking fresh and newly spring green.  Channels of water snake in and out around natural islands of tall reed-like grasses.  The water here has been freshly renewed by the recent rains.  Ducks are swimming together in the mid-day sun as it sparkles on the deeper part of the marsh. Three baby ducks practice the disappearing act “bottoms up” that ducks are known for. The banks nearby hold lots of nesting places for them, where big piles of cut reed grass were stacked into wildlife habitat.


Walking down this wetland trail, I can get lost in the magic of this place, listening to its unique sounds… the orchestra of life: birds, crickets & toads. I am struck by how this wetland trail, lined with tall willows and sycamores, is so well-removed from the tall apartment buildings that line the East side of Hwy Route 1 (Lincoln) with all its traffic. The Ballona Wetlands are located next to one of the most densely populated areas of Los Angeles County, Playa Vista, stretching out from CA Hwy Route 1 all the way to the sea, until reaching the sleepy beach town of Playa del Rey.

Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) on Bluffs at Ballona Wetlands, photo by Kathy Vilim

Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) on Bluffs at Ballona Wetlands, photo by Kathy Vilim

The other occupant of this place that catches my attention on this day is the large white  Egret.  The Egrets stand tall on long, stick-like legs, perfect for walking in a marsh.  I saw a number of them reaching their long necks down to find small fish & insects in the marshland newly revitalized after the rain.  They are easy to spot: beautiful large white birds against a largely brownish marshland background.

Today I was in for a treat when I spotted one Egret standing on a hillside of coastal scrub. He waited for me to approach, and when I got close enough, he took flight, giving me a chance to snap his picture flying above me~

Snowy Egret Takes Flight, Ballona Wetlands, Photo by Kathy Vilim

Snowy Egret Takes Flight, Ballona Wetlands, Photo by Kathy Vilim

The Ballona Wetlands is a network of various channels and marshes with diverse habitats and wildlife. The habitats, according to the Coastal Conservancy, are: estuarine (coastal wetland), freshwater, seasonally flooded, riparian, or upland.  Many birds benefit from these habitats existing next to each other, as some birds need a mix of both fresh water & salt water. The wetlands are located in the Pacific Flyway (which runs some 7500 miles up from South America), and are home to many birds that use the wetlands when traveling. Ballona is the only remaining wetland in Los Angeles County. Since this habitat was restored in 2003, more than 200 species of birds have visited, with some now returning every year to nest after more than a 70-year absence.

The east end of Ballona Wetlands where I was walking, has the only freshwater habitat in Ballona. The ocean does not reach here. It is fed by natural rainfall only, though there is salt in the clay soil.

The Estuarine marsh, closer to the ocean contains has narrow tidal channels that are reminders of past disturbances by man and his attempts to drain the marshes. Here you also find Salt pans that flood with salt water during high tides, or become ponds during the rainy season. When these ponds have formed, you can see hundreds of birds flocking to them.


Ballona Wetlands, looking north to Marina del Rey, photo by Kathy Vilim

Ballona Wetlands, looking north to Marina del Rey, photo by Kathy Vilim

Wildlife: Some of the wildlife that call Ballona Wetlands home are: the endangered Least Tern (nesting on the salt pans), Belding Savannah Sparrow (nesting in pickle weed), flocks of Egrets, Blue Herons, Meadowlarks, Owls (burrow and perch on the bluffs), and Hawks.

Native Plants:  Native plants at Ballona include Willows and Sycamores on the east end and near the bluffs; dune vegetation west of the salt marsh in Playa del Rey (being restored by the Friends of Ballona Wetlands; and high marsh plants (mainly pickleweed) in salty soil and along tidal channels throughout Ballona.

The Ballona Wetlands have seen their share of challenges since the time of the native Tongva people, from cattle grazing in the 1800s, the oil boom of the 1920s, to its most destructive period when over 900 acres of wetlands were destroyed for the creation of Marina del Rey in the 1960s.

The death of Howard Hughes in 1976 left his property up for grabs. The property is most famous as the home of the Spruce Goose. Battles over proposed development raged on throughout the 1980s, leaving environmentalists the task of educating folks on the benefits of the wetlands. With the State of California’s purchase of 192 acres in 2003 and Playa Vista’s donation of 291 acres, the new protected area now stands at 600 acres of precious wetlands.

For a comprehensive history of the Ballona Wetlands and its restoration, please visit Friends of Ballona.  As restoration efforts at Ballona continue, the wildlife will benefit, but the community will benefit, too.  As continued vertical development increases population density with and no room for gardens, there is an urgent therapeutic need for this open space, this wilderness, these trails to recharge our batteries and spend time with nature.


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