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Karen Telleen-Lawton: Snowy Plovers Nest for Success

When Dr. Cristina Sandoval arrived at UC Santa Barbara to direct the Coal Oil Point Reserve in 1997, most people didn’t know what a snowy plover was.

“Now, the plover is a cherished mascot,” she says. “There’s a Plover magazine and two murals in Isla Vista that feature plovers. It shows that with education and awareness, the community can really embrace wildlife.”

The Western snowy plover is a short winged, long legged shorebird with a dark eye line that increases its cuteness factor.

The Pacific population is threatened mainly due to loss of habitat. Coal Oil Point Reserve’s beaches, dunes and adjacent estuary is choice habitat for breeding and nesting.

Efforts to protect the plover focus on protecting their nests, which, hidden in the dunes and kelp, are easily squashed by unsuspecting beach goers and surfers. How to best manage the human and ground-nesting bird interactions is a complex question that varies with each location.

Public access and pressure for recreation are important, as well as the area’s historic habitation by plovers.

Vandenberg Air Force Base hosts central California’s largest breeding snowy plover population, so protecting the 12-mile stretch during the breeding season is critical. A large mortality event there would affect the entire Pacific coast population.

Coal Oil Point, by contrast, encompasses just one mile of beach. The smaller size makes it easier to patrol, and the nearby urban area affords access to many volunteers who can patrol and educate the public.

Plover docents offer public education that has increased beach-goer compliance, testifying to the acceptance of these shared-beach values.

From their second visit on, well over half of beach-goers leash their pets and stay away from the off limit areas.

“We see a lot more trespassing in the winter,” Sandoval says. “We have to remove the rope markers then, because storms would wash them away.” The signs remain year-round, but roping off the area, called a “symbolic fence,” has a strong deterrent effect.

Plovers are an integral part of the beach ecosystem, in part because they feed on beach flies and other insects. They are highly interesting if sometimes R-rated observation subjects.

They score only a 60 pervent in site fidelity, which in this case means some stay in the beach they are born and some try to find a home in a new beach.

Males often rear the chicks, leaving the females to seek a new breeding partner on a different beach. You could call plovers the fecund feminist bird.

Both Coal Oil Point and the Vandenberg program, described by Janene Scully, have been successful in bringing back seabird populations. Nevertheless, they face challenges for the future.

Populations naturally fluctuate dramatically (Coal Oil Point supports 50-200 plovers on any given day), but it appears that population growth has plateaued. Sandoval says one possible reason is the seasonal changes in the beach and disturbances.

The Refugio oil spill was a threat whose effect may never be known. Both the spill and the clean-up disturbed the snowy plovers during critical nesting time.

Chicks and adults could not eat as much for a couple of weeks. They huddled on dry sand, which is not nearly as rich in nutrients as wet sand.

Sandoval surmises they fledged at lower weights, but there is no tagging program so there’s no way to know. She also believes the effects of climate change are already affecting the beach in terms of more beach erosion.

Why bother with snowy plovers? If their cuteness and other bug-eating factors aren’t enough, remember only this: extinction is forever.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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