Walter Fuller says each morning at his beachfront home is “heaven.” A painted sunrise spotlights the blue-white waves. A symphony of birds alight and sing. It’s a beauty that’s made Ormond Beach, a two-mile stretch in Ventura County a destination for surfers and fishermen from all over Southern California.
“Every morning, I’m waking up to a different sunrise,” Fuller says, of his routine. “Sometimes it’s cold, sometime’s its raining. But I’m right out in nature, and for me, it’s good.”
Fuller, now 60, doesn’t wake in a palatial villa by the seaside or even a cozy bungalow. From 2008 until last June, he lived in a steel shipping container, a unit crammed with field guides and notebooks that doubled as his office. If the beach looks heavenly today, it’s because Fuller has been its guardian angel for nearly two decades. After first seeing the beach in 1996, he couldn’t keep away. Each day, he works to transform it from an industrialized, crime-ridden dump into one of the last preserved wetlands on the Southern California coast.
“I knew [Fuller] was a completely volunteer person out here trying to protect the wetlands,” says Carmen Ramirez, the vice mayor of Oxnard, the nearby city of 200,000 wedged between two naval facilities. “We didn’t have … .enough protection for it, and he would come out here and talk to people and try to engage them about bird-watching, about not doing negative things on the beach that would hurt the environment,” she says. “More and more, he’s become a legend. We count on him.”
Born outside Phoenix and raised at his grandparent’s home in Ojai, Calif., Fuller says he’s always had an affinity for nature — in particular, for birds. His first pet was a parakeet named Whitey, who’d bop his head in time with Johnny Cash records. Other caged birds — a cockatoo, parrot and myna — remained fixtures at home until a high school science teacher assigned Fuller a report on eagles. He bought a pair of binoculars in 1972 and was instantly hooked; watching birds in the wild became his new obsession.
Today, if you ask Fuller what is favorite bird is, he’ll claim it’s the bald eagle, which he spotted at Ormond last year after a lifetime of waiting. Then he’ll rattle off a list of a couple more — the great blue heron, white crown sparrows, mallards, pretty much all of the egret family — before he gleefully admits, “Actually, I love all the birds.”
His passion for the flocks has been one of his most valuable contributions to Ormond Beach, a much needed bird habitat. The beach is home to the threatened western snowy plover, a nearly inconspicuous bird that pecks food from the shoreline and whose nests are often damaged by humans. It’s also a key stop along the Pacific Flyway, a north-south route that migratory birds follow in pursuit of food, breeding grounds or warmer climates. More than 200 species have been documented at the site, including the endangered California least tern.
Due to development along the coast, “these species now have been so confined, and there’s a limited numbers of places where they can breed,” David Pereksta, a local ornithologist who works for the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, explains. Fuller’s presence helps “reinforce what the regulations are and keep an eye on these places,” he adds. “It’s not just putting up some signs and fences. It really needs a strong human presence to engage the public,” Pereksta says. “Without this active management, these birds are just not going to survive.”
Though Ormond now looks pristine, it’s hemmed in by the scars of industrialization. The Halaco scrap metal recycling plant was originally built on the city dump near the beach in the mid-1960s, but after the plant shuttered, the area was deemed a hazardous waste cleanup site by the federal government. Behind the dunes, the GenOn power plant’s tall smokestacks puff fumes into the sky. Nearby, there’s also a deepwater port to the north and a naval base to south at Point Mugu. Ironically, the factories and plants may have actually saved the beach over the long-term because they discouraged developers from putting up condos, boardwalks and marinas on the coastline.
“My vision for Ormond Beach is that it will be restored for the youngsters, that it will be turned over to them someday,” Fuller says. “I want to see my age group put it back together to what it used to be hundreds of years ago, so kids don’t have to go look up birds in a book that used to be out here and have gone extinct. You think of years past, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the passenger pigeon. They’ve all gone extinct because we didn’t take care of them. We didn’t watch them.”
Fuller began tending the beach back in the mid-1990s. He stumbled upon it while searching for a lunch spot before his afternoon maintenance work at Point Mugu began. At the time, the beach was a mess. People got wasted on booze and drugs, fired off guns and dumped trash and old furniture in the canal. Vandals canvased the parking lot for valuables. “You wouldn’t be safe walking your dog out here,” Fuller recalls. “You couldn’t walk down the pathway without worrying about stepping on glass.”
He soon spent nearly all his free time at the beach, watching the plovers scurrying in the surf or other rare birds in the dunes and informing visitors how to behave in the fragile ecosystem. Dogs off-leash or kids with pellet guns, for example, often spelled ruin for a nest.
When Fuller’s mother died, he started spending nights in his Ford Explorer parked at the beach. He took up an informal role as gatekeeper and caretaker. It was, after all, his home. Almost always dressed in a short-sleeved khaki shirt, Fuller kept one eye trained on the birds and another on the parked cars in the lot. Gradually, the beach’s clientele changed. Families and tourists showed up to see the sights, and new birds dropped in on the cleaner sands. Fuller takes notes on everything that arrives at the beach and guesses he now has at least 3,000 pages of observations. “It’s kind of about my life,” he says.
When the City of Oxnard found out about Fuller’s work, they gave him a cargo container to use as an office. Six years later, when they discovered it was also serving as Fuller’s home, they approved funds for a residential trailer. Their resolution also came with an official title and three-year contract to be “Steward of Ormond Beach.”
“This is all still in a wild state out here. Nothing has really touched it,” he says. “This is a jewel.”