When Bird Watching Means Dog Watching
A volunteer program to protect nests for the tiny, threatened snowy plover on a popular surfing beach has proven a model, but the birds still can't fly solo.
Jennifer Stroh hasn’t forgotten the day 10 years ago when two western snowy plover chicks were spotted on the beach at Coal Oil Point, a popular surfing spot near the University of California campus in Santa Barbara.
Nobody had seen a plover chick at the point for 30 years. The entire Pacific coast snowy plover population was on the federal list of threatened species. In California, the birds had stopped nesting at 33 out of 53 coastal breeding locations, driven away by human footprints, mechanized beach raking, dredging and mining operations, and the construction of seawalls and breakers.
Undeterred by the odds, Stroh swung into action along with other Santa Barbara Audubon Society volunteers. They kept an eagle eye on the two chicks, but despite their best efforts, a crow made off with one of them. So the volunteers kept a vigil from sunrise to sunset to scare the crows away. The first 30 days were the hardest because the surviving plover chick could not yet fly. No part of the beach had ever been roped off before, and the public was used to letting dogs run around off-leash.
“That was an intense summer,” said Stroh, who is now the docent coordinator for the plover program at the UCSB Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve, where the beach is known locally as Sands. “Talk about urgency. It was such a vulnerable time for that little guy. We had to jump-start our organization. We needed a schedule and phone lists, and we needed to get more people involved.”
The Audubon volunteers figured that if they could save even one chick, more plovers might try to nest at the point the following year. They were right. The next year there were nine nests, and the year after that, 24.
“It wasn’t thought it would become a breeding area,” said Chris Dellith, a biologist in the Ventura, Calif., office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It was an experiment. But, needless to say, once they eliminated any disturbances, the birds recognized that they had a safe area to put down nests and raise families.”
At Coal Oil Point today, there are 70 volunteers in the UCSB-Audubon docent program. In 2009, their best year to date, they counted 65 plover nests and 61 chicks. Last year, the number of nests dropped to 15 because storms washed many of them away, and a predator, perhaps an owl, made off with some chicks.
In its 10th anniversary year, Coal Oil Point remains only place on the West Coast where the plovers have returned to a historic breeding ground on a popular public beach and continued to breed there in large numbers.
“That has been the major success story,” said Jim Watkins, a Fish and Wildlife biologist in Arcata, Calif., who oversees the West Coast plover recovery program. “We’ve had birds come and nest at sites, but then they vacate after a couple of years. Because of the work at UCSB and the reserve system, we’ve had the birds nesting there consistently, year after year.”
It’s been a hard act to follow. More drastic measures are in place to the north of Sands Beach at Vandenberg Air Force Base, a major breeding spot for the plovers. All but a half-mile of two public beaches and a quarter-mile of a third are closed at Vandenberg from March 1 to Sept.15 during the nesting season.
Every year, the base puts the public on notice that the beaches will be completely closed if more than 50 people at Surf or 10 at Wall and Minuteman are caught entering the closed-off nesting areas. In the 2010 season, Vandenberg recorded 255 plover nests. Four hundred chicks were hatched. Minuteman was temporarily closed because of violations, as beach visitors repeatedly ignored the posted signs.
Still further north on California’s Central Coast, off-highway drivers have the upper hand at the Oceano Dunes, where five out of 6.5 miles of beach are open to street vehicles year-round, and three miles are open to off-road vehicles. California State Parks closes 1.5 miles of beach during the plover nesting season. The park maintains a fenced enclosure around 300 acres of plover habitat in the dunes during the breeding season, leaving 1,200 acres open for riding.
Even at Coal Oil Point, there was initially strong opposition to the plover program, as Anita Guerrini, an environmental historian at Oregon State University, recounts in “The Trouble with Plovers” in the 2009 book New Visions of Nature: Complexity and Authenticity. “I’ve walked my dog on this beach for 30 years without a leash, and I’m not going to change that now,” Guerrini quotes one resident as saying at a public hearing.
In Lompoc, the town nearest Vandenberg, a popular bumper sticker in 2006 read, “Save the beaches, fry the plovers.” At Oceano, residents successfully argued that large closures would represent a severe economic impact to the area: The dunes attract nearly 2 million visitors yearly.
“To the public, the broader significance of the plover is not its ecological role, but its role as a symbol of an environmentalism that is seen by much of the public as arbitrary and out of control,” Guerrini wrote. “In particular, it has become a symbol of the Endangered Species Act, which has been demonized across the country as opposed to humans and to private property.”
In a recent interview, Guerrini said she supported the efforts to save the plover but was uneasy about some aspects of the program. The volunteers at Coal Oil Point, for example, sometimes use a slingshot to scare crows away. In the past, biologists there have trapped and euthanized skunks and raccoons to protect the plover eggs. A fence is now in place to keep the skunks out.
“All these other animals are there, too,” Guerrini said. “Why is the plover more valuable than they are? Maybe we’re managing it too much. I don’t think this is ever going to be the entire answer to protecting endangered species. We assume we know the final answer to the science, and that’s probably not true. The science could change.”
According to Fish and Wildlife, it will take nearly 40 years for western snowy plovers in the U.S. to return to their 1970 population levels of 3,000, the minimum target for delisting. Today, there are 2,270 birds, up only slightly from 2,000 when the species was listed in 1993. The plovers also have been listed as threatened along the western coast of Baja California, Mexico.
“It’s become a species that’s reliant on our conservation efforts,” said Kate Symonds, a Fish and Wildlife biologist in Santa Rosa, Calif., and a former docent at Coal Oil Point. “If we were to walk away from protection efforts at this point, the snowy plover numbers would really drop off.”
North of San Francisco in Marin County, Calif., Symonds helped launch a small-scale plover program last year at Dillon Beach, working with the owner of an RV campground at the mouth of Tomales Bay. Four days a week, a docent is paid to keep an eye on dogs and provide beachgoers with a view of the plovers through a spotting scope. There are 120 adult plovers on Dillon Beach during the winter, but they fly to Monterey and Humboldt bays to breed.
Fish and Wildlife is trying to replicate the Coal Oil Point program on beaches in Ventura, Calif., where areas have been roped off to protect nesting plovers. Some Los Angeles-area beaches are giving it a try, too.
The Coal Oil Point program costs $30,000 yearly, including funding from UCSB and Audubon. Volunteer docents rotate on two-hour shifts during daylight hours, guarding a half-mile-long section of beach that is roped off on both sides of the mouth of a slough. During the spring and summer, they watch the plover nests; and during the fall and winter, they protect a large population of about 400 adult plovers, including some that have migrated to the coast from inland lakeshores and mud flats.
The docents greet every person who arrives at the beach with a dog. If the dog is on a leash, they hand out dog biscuits, and if the dog is not, they hand out a leash. They scare away crows as soon as they land on the beach. They direct joggers and walkers to the water’s edge, away from the nesting area. The plovers, small pale brown birds with white chests and a black patch behind the eye, may be sitting on the sand just outside the ropes, nearly invisible among the stones.
There were a few bad years at Coal Oil Point when skunks ate a lot of plover eggs overnight. And in 2006, the California Coastal Commission banned dogs from the beach but stayed the order pending a yearlong trial. But only one dog has ever killed a plover chick since the program began. About 80 percent of dogs now arrive at the beach on a leash, and the commission is satisfied.
“In an age when we hear about conflicts, there’s an important lesson for us to take,” said Graham Chisholm, the executive director and vice president of California Audubon. “People ignore signs, take down signs and mark on signs. But if you’ve got the right person sitting on the beach, helping other people see why some of these areas need to be protected, it goes a long way.”