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Guest commentary: Ocean Beach’s Dog Beach is not for the birds

Terns take flight in the Mission Bay Southern Wildlife Preserve at the western end of the San Diego River channel.
Terns take flight in the Mission Bay Southern Wildlife Preserve at the western end of the San Diego River channel, near Dog Beach in Ocean Beach.
(Budd Titlow)

I get it.

I love all dogs and I know they need a special place to romp and splash. Dog Beach in Ocean Beach — at the western end of the San Diego River channel — is just such a place. Created in 1972, it has a long history of providing the perfect playground for pooches — with no leashes restricting their activities.

But I’m also a serious birdwatcher and photographer. Since moving to the San Diego area 2½ years ago, I’ve found that the San Diego River channel — centering around Smiley Lagoon — offers the best birding opportunities of any place I’ve ever lived. I’ve lived and avidly birded in seven different parts of the country, so that covers a lot of ground. On my almost daily photographic forays along the river channel’s bike paths, I’ve gotten several hundred of my “career best” bird photos.

Ecologically, the San Diego River channel is an important component of the Pacific Flyway, which stretches from Alaska to Patagonia. East of Dog Beach, the river’s mouth is called the Mission Bay Southern Wildlife Preserve.

The birding is especially good from November through April. This is when thousands upon thousands of wading birds, shorebirds, gulls, terns and pelicans spend time feeding in the channel’s tidal flats and shallow waters.

Now here’s the problem: Unleashed dogs and wild birds just don’t mix well. This is because there’s no definitive demarcation between Dog Beach and Smiley Lagoon.

Canines take in Dog Beach in Ocean Beach on Aug. 14.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Everything is fine as long as the unleashed dogs are restricted to the area officially designated as Dog Beach — which extends roughly 0.3 miles to the east of the high tide line. But the trouble starts when dogs and people venture into the prime bird habitat area further to the east, along Smiley Lagoon.

Dogs being dogs, they love to chase anything that moves. Too often — starting at the western edge of Smiley Lagoon — this includes large flocks of feeding and resting birds. And since birds are especially fragile when they are migrating, the presence of uncontrolled dogs in their essential feeding habitat can be extremely detrimental.

White pelicans feed in a group in the nature preserve at the western end of the San Diego River channel.
(Budd Titlow)

So what’s the answer to this dog vs. bird conundrum? Both types of animals have a right to occupy the west end of the San Diego River channel — the dogs by virtue of a long-standing city beach designation and the birds by virtue of migrating through San Diego County for thousands of years.

But the solution may well be close at hand. There are already a couple of signs in the river channel stating “Notice — approaching wildlife preserve.” These signs are mounted on sturdy 4-by-4 posts designed to withstand severe tidal surges.

These signs should be moved to the western end of Smiley Lagoon. Then the wording should be changed to read “Notice — entering wildlife preserve. No dogs allowed.”

Next, two or three more signs — also mounted on 4-by-4 posts — should be added. Finally, all the sign posts should be linked together with narrow-gauge, wire mesh fencing. This fencing would minimize visual impacts while creating a definitive north-south boundary across the sandy part of the river channel.

Creating this low-key sign-fence combination would be a classic win-win situation for everyone. The dogs would still have all of Dog Beach for romping and running. The birds would have all of Smiley Lagoon — and further east — for feeding and resting. Finally, we humans would be able to enjoy our individual delights — be it seeing Fido have fun with his canine buddies or watching our feathered friends fatten themselves for future travels.

Budd Titlow is a professional wetland scientist emeritus, wildlife biologist, nature photographer and author. He lives in north Pacific Beach.


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