Ocean Beach’s Dog Beach — It’s Not for the Birds!

by on September 3, 2020 · 4 comments

in Environment, Ocean Beach

Elegant Terns in Flight. All photos by Budd Titlow

By 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 2 1/2 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. Because I’ve lived and avidly birded in seven different parts of the country — 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 during the months of 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.

Reddish Egret Stalking Prey. All photos by Budd Titlow

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.

Black-Necked Stilt Feeding

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.

So what’s the answer to this dog versus 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.

Snowy Egret with Fish

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 4×4 posts designed to withstand severe tidal surges.

First, these existing signs should be moved to the western end of Smiley Lagoon. Then the wording on these signs should be changed to read “NOTICE —Entering Wildlife Preserve —No Dogs Allowed”.

Tricolored Heron Hunting

Next, 2-3 more signs— also mounted on 4×4 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— excluding the permanent water— 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, us 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.

A Professional Wetland Scientist (Emeritus) and Wildlife Biologist (MS), Budd Titlow is an award-winning nature photographer and a widely published writer/author currently living in north Pacific Beach. And as far as he knows now, he’s not related to the Titlows of Ocean Beach.


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Avatar Frank J September 3, 2020 at 6:57 pm

Great & wonderful win-win. Too bad we’re spending $1.1M to fix a sidewalk at Dog beach that no one used, or there might be a few grand for your solution.


Avatar Marta September 11, 2020 at 2:09 pm

I’ve long agreed that a more substantial barrier or demarcation should be made to keep the dogs and their owners on Dog Beach and not along the San Diego River bed. Do not allow dogs leashed or otherwise east of the eastern edge of the parking area. Birders can coexist with the birds and not trample their nests and walk on the existing trails. Its an especially sensitive time as the multiyear reconstruction project of the bridge at Sports Arena is creating excessive pressure on the area from the east and will continue to do so for years to come.


Avatar Denine September 25, 2020 at 6:57 pm

I just saw some new really cool signs posted in Smiley Lagoon. Artwork is done by kids and the messages are great! Check it out. Looks like this educational effort is sponsored by the City of San Diego and the Autobon Society. (I posted some pics on Social OB Facebook page.)


Avatar Kimberley B September 30, 2020 at 10:23 am

Let’s get a group together and figure out how to do this! Before it’s too late. It just makes sense.


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