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

by on September 3, 2020 · 5 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.


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

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.


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.


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.)


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.


Judy Swink May 28, 2021 at 3:41 pm

This topic was hashed through quite thoroughly about 2004 by an ad hoc committee with reps from the SD River Park Fdtn., OB, Mission Bay Park (which the estuary is a part of) and the Audubon Society (Jim Peugh & Phil Pryde). Here’s a list of participants: Jim Peugh, Lindsay Goodwin, Jim Harrison, Phil Pryde, Barb Ayers, Judy Swink, Mindy Pellisier, and Rob Hutsel

The existing signs are located at the western edge of the formally designated Southern Wildlife Reserve and specifically located where dry sand, at least in the past decade or so, ends and tidal sands & mud begin. There is no fencing between the posts because it would gather up all of the debris and dead vegetation brought down the river in flood times and would gather kelp which washes upriver during high waves & tides times. A related problem would be the strain on the embedded posts from added weight. Then there’s the question of whether fencing would be a Coastal Commission issue. IIRC, the orange plastic netting around the Least Tern Nesting Site during nesting season required approval by the CC.

The text of the sign makes clear that the area beyond the posts is a Wildlife Reserve and, further, that harassment of migratory birds is a violation of federal law. Birders can take photos and contact Mission Bay Park rangers if they observe egregious behavior by people allowing their dogs to chase any birds. From P&R webpage: “Mission Bay Park Rangers are responsible for resource protection and management in Mission Bay Park, including Southern and Northern Wildlife Preserves, Famosa Slough, and along the mouth of the San Diego River. Park Rangers are also very active in preparing and protecting the annual Least Tern nesting areas. Park Rangers can be reached by calling (858) 581-7602.”


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