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Sunday, January 20 , 2019, 12:15 am | Fair 51º


Joining the Snowy Plover Squad Is a Docent Thing to Do

Looking for something to do over the summer without driving far away? Get some sun, birdwatching, mild exercise, education, and help conserve natural resources all in one go. Coal Oil Point Reserve could use some volunteers.

Summer is a critical period for the Western Snowy Plover. The threatened bird’s breeding season arrives at a time when beach traffic picks up and there are fewer docents around for protection. (Sonia Fernandez / Noozhawk photo)

To see them, you have to stand extremely still and quiet. It helps to hunker down in the sand.

After a few moments of scanning the beach, they begin to appear, these tiny masters of disguise: black white and gray balls of feather and fluff. Their spindly, twig-like legs seem to work on only two speeds — fast and stop.

They’re Western Snowy Plovers and if you’ve seen one recently, count yourself lucky. Not only do the sparrow-sized birds blend in perfectly with the Sands Beach dunes in the Ellwood area, the threatened birds are also not having the same kind of success this breeding season as they have in the past couple of years.

“The numbers haven’t increased,” said Jennifer Stroh, program coordinator for the Snowy Plover Docent Program at Coal Oil Point. After a couple years of success at increasing the bird’s population — thanks to the cooperation of local dog and horse owners who keep their animals away from the plovers’ vulnerable nesting sites, and beachgoers who’ve been careful about where they walk — the plovers aren’t multiplying like they were.

There can be any number of reasons for this lack of population growth. Snowy plovers are stressed and will abandon their nests if frightened, leaving the eggs to the elements, or scavengers.

For plover docents and local residents Linda Hill and Ellen Hamilton, the most likely reason is the increase in predators.

“In the last couple of years the skunk population around here exploded,” said Hamilton, who with Hill, comes down regularly for their two-hour morning watch. It could be that people haven’t been so good about keeping their trash covered, making for easy pickings for the animals, who dine on leftovers as easily as plover eggs.

Crows are another big issue, said Hamilton. But while crows are relatively easy to drive away, local raptors aren’t.

“We’ve seen a redtail hawk preying on the birds,” said Hamilton. “They’re a lot faster.”

For those involved in watching the tiny birds, spring and summer are critical times. It’s the plovers’ breeding season, but it’s also the time when the beaches become more popular, as well as the time the docent program loses many of its student volunteers, who go away for the summer.

“We need about 80 to 100 volunteers over the summer,” Stroh said. As far as the work is concerned, it’s a fairly cushy job: for a couple of hours a week, each volunteer monitors a roughly half-mile stretch of beach marked off by fencing, where the plovers nest.  People and animals need to be kept away from that area.

“It was more work in the beginning,” said Hill, “when people were more used to going wherever they wanted on the beach, with off-leash dogs.”

Nowadays both the docents and the beachgoing locals have learned to work with each other, to the birds’ benefit.

Other volunteers can help feed the chicks that are being raised by the program’s staff by collecting the tiny crustaceans called “hoppers” that congregate around the kelp that washes up onto the shore.

“It’s rather unfortunate that the time the most volunteers leave is the time we need them the most,” said Stroh.

To find out more about the Snowy Plover Docent Program, e-mail Stroh at [email protected] or call 805.893.3703.

Meanwhile, at Devereux Slough, a monitoring program of a different sort is under way.

“We’re here to monitor the long-term changes in the slough,” said Tara Longwell, who coordinates for the Devereux Slough Monitoring Program.

Located south of Ocean Meadows Golf Club and west of UCSB campus housing, Devereux Slough is an area popular with local birdwatchers who come to see the nearly 300 species of birds that live in or migrate through the area.

But it’s what’s in the water that interests Longwell the most. Fish, water quality, vegetation and other sorts of creatures in the water are just a few of the the subjects of the monitoring program.

Monitoring the life and the water quality in that slough is becoming increasingly important, said Longwell. According to program data, about 85 percent of its watershed has been developed and modified.

The monitoring has turned up some interesting facts. For instance, the Tidewater goby, an endangered fish that was thought to have disappeared from the area about 30 years ago was recently found in the slough. Meanwhile, the mosquitofish, a beneficial creature as far as vector control is concerned, has also been found to be eating the locals, or at least outcompeting them for food.

The Devereux Slough Monitoring Program, which recently earned a UCSB Coastal Fund award, is open to educators, researchers and community members interested in learning about the diverse ecology of the slough. Participants will get involved in, among other things, fish surveys, water quality measurements, vegetation surveys and bird research.

Given the amount of housing either planned for or already in the area, changes to water quality and animal population are inevitable, said Longwell, although it would take a long-term monitoring program to be able to see the entire picture.

“We need to see how the slough is changing,” she said.

Click here for more information about the Devereux Slough Monitoring Program, e-mail Tara Longwell at [email protected] or call 805.893.5092.

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at [email protected]

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