Part V – Back on the Beach
Western Snowy Plovers (WSPs) do not nest on Surfrider Beach, they roost for the winter. They begin arriving in July, numbers peak Sept-Feb, the last one leaves by May. In fact, they recently arrived; 22 were counted last Sunday, 7/22, roosting just east of the plover enclosure.
Plover volunteers, including members of Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society (SMBAS), census Snowies and search for banded birds nine months of the year. (SMBAS also does a year-round census of all birds in the lagoon vicinity.) If you see one or more people with binoculars, moving very slowly through the plover enclosure or nearby, frequently stopping and using binoculars to stare at the ground, they’re looking for banded birds.
The problem is that WSPs evolved to live on barren sandy beaches. Their habitat is now crowded with hundreds of millions of human visitors every year, humans involved in their own pursuits – surfing, swimming, sunning, walking, tossing Frisbees, letting dogs run free – humans oblivious to these tiny residents of the beach, residents who simply were not built for this. They have other problems: regular beach grooming which removes the wrack, vehicular traffic, predators attracted to human refuse. Dugan and Hubbard (2003) found that Snowy Plover abundance on southern California beaches was positively correlated with the mean cover of wrack and abundance of wrack-associated invertebrates. They also found (2009) that beach grooming increased beach erosion and the need for beach replenishment. Perhaps local beach authorities could help the plovers – which are, after all, a threatened species – as well as reduce cost for sand replenishment by ending large-scale grooming (see photo above) of the beach around plover roosting sites.
We’ve found that nearly everyone, once alerted to the presence of Snowies on the beach, will watch out for them and avoid them. Very few people have entered the plover enclosures we’ve erected for them over the past few years. Unfortunately, the Snowies – despite our best efforts to teach them to read – have failed to grasp the concept and often sit outside the enclosure. We plan to move the enclosure as often as is feasible.
Very recently, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service increased by 102% the official Critical Habitat for WSPs, from 12,145 acres up to 24,547 acres of Pacific sandy beach. Surfrider Beach/Malibu Lagoon Critical Habitat was increased to about 13 acres, extending from just northeast of the pier to the colony fence. Our experience of working with the Snowies is that they rarely go beyond the area between the two lifeguard stations and much prefer the beach directly between the lagoon and ocean. In one sense, the more designated Critical Habitat, the better. In another sense, the timing of this designation hampers the project to reconfigure the lagoon’s west channels. Snowies don’t use elevated or vegetated areas. They depend upon the open beach and the wrack.
People ask us why we bother with such small creatures. They’re not big and flashy like pandas, lions or gorillas. Our answers are numerous: they’re adorable, they are so pathetically few, few people know or care, humans caused their decline, they need our help, they’re cute, empathy for fellow earthlings, they’re wonderfully interesting to watch and know, they have engaging personalities. Each and every one of us loves these little birds.