Protecting Snowy Plovers

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Protecting Snowy Plovers
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By Shelly Leachman, UC Santa Barbara

Conservation requires a certain type of heroics: research to identify and develop solutions, and the resources to put them into place. And sometimes it’s a matter of being quick on one’s feet — quite literally.

Case in point: Cristina Sandoval, longtime director of UC Santa Barbara’s Coal Oil Point Reserve.

In her devoted and valiant efforts to recover the snowy plover, a diminutive shorebird once threatened on the Pacific Coast that nests each year on the reserve, Sandoval has employed every strategy there is — and created some new ones. Such as racing more than a dozen plover eggs to safety, in the dark of night, while cradling them in her own two hands.

The waves at the reserve were massive in July, unusual for the time of year. When huge breakers were crashing on the beach during high tide late one evening, the water reached — and rushed into — the plover nests nearby. From her home on the reserve, Sandoval saw it unfolding before her eyes; she dropped her dinner plate and ran.

“In 23 years here that was the first time ever that I’ve seen that in July — the ocean flooded the nesting area and water was gushing over the nests,” Sandoval said. “I rushed to the beach and started grabbing eggs and putting them in my shirt. A few were gone to the ocean but we got about 14. I carried them home in my hands, rinsed them, kept them in an incubator overnight and the next day they were taken to the zoo.”

Snowy Plover Rescue | Coal Oil Point Reserve and the Santa Barbara Zoo from UC Santa Barbara on Vimeo.

That’s the Santa Barbara Zoo, where those same 14 eggs, in recent days, have all hatched. The zoo’s plover areas are not open to the public, but it can be confirmed that several adorable plovers are currently scurrying to and fro in a protected flight pen. They will remain there until they are strong and big enough for release back to the beach.

The zoo for years has operated a robust and successful plover conservation program, with Sandoval and Coal Oil Point Reserve playing a key role.

Though not all the plovers reared at the zoo are Coal Oil Point rescues (some have come from Ormond Beach in Oxnard and from Oso Flaco and Oceano Dunes in northern Santa Barbara County), all have been released at the reserve. “Coal Oil Point is an extremely good release location because it’s well-monitored, it has much less foot traffic than some other beaches and it’s close to the zoo," Rachel Ritchason, director of collections for the Santa Barbara Zoo, said during a recent tour of the zoo’s plover facility for Sandoval, her staff and volunteer docents.  And they are such great partners.” 

Protecting the plovers and their nests during breeding season at Coal Oil Point is a constant and evolving challenge, for birds and biologist alike. Sandoval and her colleagues often have to change strategies as quickly as plovers scamper across the sand.

One year, when the skunks were relentless, known to eat every nest in a single evening, Sandoval took to catching skunks by hand. It was risky (and stinky) business, and not sustainable. So, another new technique then: Wooden eggs, painted to match true plover eggs, were placed in the nests — “plover parents are not very discriminant about the egg shape,” Sandoval said — while the real ones went into an incubator. When they were ready to hatch, the eggs were returned to their parents, who were never the wiser.

“This method also was not sustainable because I had to wake up at night to check if the eggs were pipping,” Sandoval said. “One night in 2008, the power went off because of the Gap Fire and we had two incubators full of plover eggs. I didn’t have a generator so I moved all the eggs to my kitchen oven and added candles to keep it warm, moving candles in and out all night to keep the temperature at 99.8 F. All the eggs hatched but that was too stressful, so I stopped using the egg swap method.”

The current breeding season began with the potential to be the best ever, with a record 68 adult plovers at the start, according to Sandoval. Nesting started early, she said, and “at one point there were so many nests that it was hard to track them.”

That didn’t last long.

The beach flooding this year was a rarity; crafty predators are expected. But this season has been tougher than most. Crows gobbled up 32 nests, about 100 eggs altogether, almost as soon as they discovered them. And the usual methods of determent — harassing crows by chasing them away, scaring them by waving and pretending to eat a fake crow as a predator would — weren’t working. So the conservationists at COPR had to get crafty themselves.

“We realized we would have no nesting success at all this year unless we protected the nests,” Sandoval said. “Other plover sites have successfully used a metal cage called a predator exclosure that surrounds each nest. It has a small mesh side where the plover parents can come in and out, but is too small for a crow to get in. It can attract owls and hawks, which catch the plover parent when it is trying to leave the exclosure, so we modified the traditional exclosure to also prevent an owl from eating the adults.” 

Using mesh and zip ties, and plywood for the roofs to block the view of owls, Sandoval’s team built exclosures for the surviving nests at Coal Oil Point and at the nearby North Campus Open Space. They gave them each two walls — a single wall is traditional — to give the birds more time and options for escape, should a predator land outside.

“Any intervention to a plover’s natural life requires permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but they quickly reviewed the modifications and approved them,” Sandoval said. “Before the exclosures we lost about 100 eggs from crows.  After the exclosures were placed we didn’t lose a single egg from crows, and many chicks have hatched since we started using the modified exclosures.”

Skunks are still an issue, as baby skunks can get through the mesh, and owls are wont to eat the hatched chicks once they leave the exclosure and begin to explore. Deploying fake eggs wrapped in electrified wire — a booby trap of sorts — could eventually teach skunks, via a small shock, to avoid plover eggs. But protecting chicks from owl predation once they’re out and about?

“This is a bigger challenge to solve,” Sandoval said. “These challenges sometimes seem endless but the efforts are paying off. At one point in the 90’s there were just over 500 Western snowy plovers left on the Pacific Coast. There are over 4000 plovers now.  The increase is mostly a result of managing beach recreation in a way that is compatible with plovers nesting in peace. Our local community adopted the new way to use Sands Beach and the number of plover nests went from zero in 2000 to about 60 per year now.

“It’s really amazing to see something so vulnerable be so resilient,” she continued. “Despite all these things they have survived for thousands and thousands of years — it’s just incredible. Ours was the first historically abandoned nesting site that was brought back. So we’ve learned it can be done, and they are making a comeback. There’s a lot of hope.”

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Flicka Aug 19, 2019 09:35 AM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

All our animals and birds are well worth saving. The most important birds, or other animals including our bees, are the ones going extinct.

a-1590899461 Aug 19, 2019 06:35 PM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

FLICKA. Care to rewrite that thought? I'm sure I'm not the only one who doesn't get what you mean by "The most important birds."

AdamVant Aug 18, 2019 06:49 PM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

Vagrants are destroying snowy plover habitat at Ormond Beach in Oxnard. Environmentalists haven't said boo. Bums and hobos are a protected class now, so the snowy plover be damned.

PitMix Aug 20, 2019 10:49 AM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

Bring on the personal attacks and the downvotes. You are really setting a good example for civilized discourse in our society. Maybe you can eliminate all of the posters that try to base their opinions on actual facts. Once we are gone from the site then you can just congratulate each other on your extremist views. That will be a lot of fun, won't it? I wish you would at least have the courage of your convictions to use a consistent handle so I could know whose comments to avoid reading.

AdamVant Aug 19, 2019 02:44 PM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

Here you go, my little shadow Pitmix:

AdamVant Aug 19, 2019 02:43 PM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

Pitmix, my cute little shadow, following me from comment to comment. Aren't you adorable! Thank you for all of your comments. Here's an article about the vagrant invasion at Ormond Beach, and the utter inaction and self-inflicted paralysis by environmentalists to do anything about it. Bums and hobos: Yes. Snowy plover: No.

AdamVant Aug 19, 2019 05:32 PM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

Dear Pitmix, here's another article. Looks like Oxnard is finally going to do something to rid Ormond Beach of the bums and hobos, which will help the snowy plover. Hooray for the snowy plover!

PitMix Aug 19, 2019 11:20 AM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

Please provide your data confirming that no environmentalist has said anything about this problem, and where you first heard about this problem in a reputable forum. Very hard to believe most of your assertions.

a-1590899461 Aug 18, 2019 01:27 PM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

"Traditional access"? "Negative impact on OUR natural world"?.. Boy, talk about Manifest-destiny mentality. Everything humans complain about, is a result of human occupancy. Consider that the globe spun harmoniously for humanity, for tens of thousands of years, & in less than 500 it has been destroyed by same said humans..& somehow they're unhappy?.. Humans have pooped in their own sleep in it.

SBZZ Aug 18, 2019 11:39 AM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

The crow population in suburbia is out of control because they are smart enough to live off of us - this story provides a good example their negative impact to our natural world - overly preying on our native bird nestlings like the snowy plover. Culling their population would return a bit of balance to our natural world.

a-1590899461 Aug 18, 2019 11:11 PM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

SBZZ. Umm . . . They're called "American crows" for a reason. Can't get much more native than than. Exactly how are American crows "smart enough to live off us?" If there are any birds who are "living off us," it's the gulls that pick through the trash cans at the parks. So . . . now we should "cull" (euphemism for murder) gulls, too? How about the hordes of blackbirds we all see pecking around in parking lots? Let's get those little suckers, since they are obviously "living off us." I've got Scrub jays coming to my bird feeders. Shall we get out the poison and/or guns and go after them as well? Scrub jays are known to eat other birds' nestlings. That's gotta be "negative impact" all right. Sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper's hawks almost exclusively eat smaller birds. Don't forget Red-tail hawks and other birds of prey. I say let's get all those freeloaders and bird eaters now, before they realize their ambition to destroy "the balance of our natural world." They ain't got nothing on us humans and our "negative impact," that's for sure. Be proactive. If you see a bird you think might eat a crumb or dine on another bird, best to be on the safe side and send it to Kingdom Come.

a-1590899461 Aug 18, 2019 11:28 AM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

90% of the planet's animal species have gone extinct due to human destruction. Save one, single insect & destroy the entire human population instead...that would be much better.

a-1590899461 Aug 18, 2019 11:18 AM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

Localmatt. It’s about trying to maintain a balance. Those plovers eat sand flies - that’s enough reason to save them in my book. We call them the roadrunners of the beach. As far as the horse trails that are no longer there... we’ll all I gotta say is there are plenty of other places to ride. Give nature a place to ride if you would. Humans encroaching on habitats is one of the main causes of wildlife loss.

PitMix Aug 19, 2019 11:34 AM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

Besides, who said that snowy plovers have to make a case for their continued survival? Too bad we don't have to make a case for when humans decide that we want to wipe something out. Wolves, grizzly bears, buffalo, elk, mountain lions, condors, etc- anything that is easy to shoot or poison. Should really change that state flag.

Lucky 777 Aug 18, 2019 09:32 AM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

The Plover People have also managed to take away the traditional access for equestrians to ride on the beach north of the Venoco oil storage tanks. Historically riders have been able to access the beach from a trail through the dunes there and ride North, below the golf course, to where the cliffs prevent further passage on the rocky shore. This is NOT plover nesting area, but now it is signposted no horse/mule riding there. This used to be a highlight of a ride on Ellwood Mesa. I miss it.

a-1590899461 Aug 18, 2019 11:15 PM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

Lucky777. You mean ride West. North is toward the Santa Ynez Mts.

ParvoPup Aug 17, 2019 10:19 PM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

You do realize that for over 20 years, Lompoc has been prevented from using our beaches for most of the year to "save" the plover. So not much pity coming your way from up here in the Northern Wilderness. Ever wonder...what if Nature intended for something to go extinct and we in our fervor of well-intentioned ignorance, stopped it from happening, what would be the consequences?

PitMix Aug 19, 2019 11:25 AM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

Guess what, you are watching. Have fun with that. Glaciers melting that could make the oceans rise 25 feet. Nature is coming for you!

a-1590899461 Aug 18, 2019 01:52 PM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

PARVOPUP. I think what Mother Nature would most like to see extinct is humans. We're the ones causing other species to go the way of the Dodo at a record rate.

a-1590899461 Aug 17, 2019 10:06 PM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

The fact that Snowy plovers numbers are on a rapid decline is what contributes to their need to have their nesting sites protected. I applaud the efforts made to keep the birds and their progeny safe. Keeping dogs on-leash in that area is no great hardship. Keeping people away is okay, too. What I do object to is any killing of wildlife in order to protect certain bird species. There are conservation groups that trap and kill and even poison any animals they deem harmful to "protected" bird species. At one point in Santa Barbara (true story) there was a group of people using slingshots, shooting at American crows, ostensibly to protect Snowy plovers. Not so very long ago, either. Maybe 20 years ago or so. A complete disgrace and absolutely disgusting.

PitMix Aug 19, 2019 11:28 AM
Protecting Snowy Plovers

If you don't like that, don't visit New Zealand. They are ruthless on non-native species that are wiping out their native animals. And it also seems to work, just like killing the pigs on our islands restored that habitat. And bringing back bald eagles there got rid of the fox-killing golden eagles. Lots of tough decisions.

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