This LAX-adjacent ghost town is now ‘priceless coastal real estate’ for rare owls
When the Los Angeles beachfront community of Surfridge
disappeared decades ago to make way for the jet age, nature was
slow to reclaim the sandy dunes and upscale lots that once
dominated the path of planes taking off from Los Angeles
Today however, this 2-mile
ghost town of vanished homes supports a growing list of
protected and endangered species that have somehow adapted to the
throttled-up roar of passenger jets. Surrounded by hurricane
fencing and “no trespassing” signs, the LAX Dunes Preserve is now a
haven for some of the rarest creatures in California.
Scientists were elated by the recent discovery of 10 burrowing
owls hunkered down in the 302-acre preserve — the most seen here in
four decades. Among the raptors are a breeding pair that stand
guard over a nest and hiss at occasional passersby.
A burrowing owl next to its den at the LAX Dunes Preserve, at
the west end of the airport's runways. Scientists attribute the
return of the migratory owls to ongoing restoration work at the
302-acre preserve. (U.S. Geological Survey)
“For wintering owls, this tiny chunk of land has become
priceless coastal real estate,” he said, raising his voice over the
deafening roar of aircraft a few hundred feet overhead. “That’s
because there is no place else left for them to go in the city of
“For biologists, the preserve has become an ecological hot spot
sandwiched between a popular beach and the third-busiest airport in
the nation,” said Robert Fisher, a U.S. Geological Survey
biologist. “We aim to make sure things stay that way.”
The range of biodiversity in the windswept landscape — which is
off-limits to the public — underscores the difficulty that
government wildlife biologists face ensuring the survival of rare
species in an urban setting.
Biologists believe there is a chance that juvenile burrowing
owls might become permanent residents of the preserve, which is
just one small fragment of a dune system that once stretched along
the Pacific Coast from Point Conception, west of Santa Barbara, to
It is already home to 900 species of plants and animals,
including federally endangered El Segundo blue butterflies, whose
numbers were in steep decline due to habitat loss. Today, thousands
of blues flutter over robust stands of buckwheat during certain
times of the year.
Ongoing genetic tests aim to determine whether the
prehistoric-looking creatures belong to a subspecies unique to the
dunes, Fisher said. Up until a few years ago, the 4½-inch lizards
resided only on the preserve’s southern boundaries.
Then there are the
legless lizards, which were recently discovered in the
The legless lizard remains one of the most poorly studied
reptiles in California, so researchers were thrilled to find six
elusive specimens this month. A team led by Fisher and USGS
ecologist Adam Backlin found them after turning over a few boards
that were placed there earlier to create the kind of moist, cool
area the reptiles prefer.
Fisher reached down and scooped up one of the lizards for a
closer look. They measure about 8 inches long and are as thin as a
drinking straw. “How cool is that?” he asked out loud as the
creature wriggled in the palm of his hand.
Federal scientists are discussing proposals to reintroduce
animals that roamed the dunes a century ago but are no longer
there. One candidate could be the
Pacific pocket mouse, a critically endangered, thumb-sized
mammal previously found only on a gun range at Marine Corps Base
Camp Pendleton, about 115 miles south.
In the meantime, volunteers organized by nonprofit organizations
such as the Bay Foundation and Friends of the LAX Dunes have been
working with authorities and the preserve’s owner — Los Angeles
World Airports — to help restore the landscape.
Each month, they uproot the invasive weeds that sprout along the
cracked, forgotten roads of Surfridge. Developed in the 1920s and
’30s, Surfridge was an isolated playground far from downtown — at
least up until the time it was purchased by LAX and cleared of
homes that sat just beyond the western edge of the airport’s
Today, after three years of weed removal, “we’re seeing a surge
in native vegetation in some of the places we’ve cleaned up,” said
Melodie Grubbs, director of watershed programs for the Bay
Foundation. “Invasive plants including mustard and Russian thistle,
for example, are being replaced by lupine, deer weed, evening
primrose, buckwheat and California poppies.”
Though burrowing owls were once among the state's most common
birds, their numbers have been dropping steadily since the 1940s
due to urban development, eradication of the rodents they feed on,
pesticides, predation by domestic animals, vehicle strikes,
collisions with wind turbines and shootings.