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Western Snowy Plovers (Part V): Back on the Beach

What's going on now with our Surfrider Snowy Plovers.

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.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

David Paul Dominguez July 30, 2012 at 01:39 AM
Where are the surfers now that there habitat and surf is threatened by an endangered species? ? Why aren't they thinking or on the side of the Snowy Plover? Or, are they concerned more about their surf tournament? They only think of themselves when their habitat that they have conquered is being rehabilitated from there abuse and neglect? What's up with that? I am calling you out on this, surfer environmentalist. Where is your principals and integrity?
hellwood July 30, 2012 at 04:29 AM
david, principles? integrity?? surfers typically do their "surfing" IN the ocean, NOT on the sand, and this doesn't disturb the plovers. hundreds of millions of people is a gross exaggeration of how many people visit this plover "habitat" at surfrider each year, and the majority of visitors aren't surfers. surfers aren't the ones combing the beach with tractors. you didn't even read this article, did you? you saw the word surfer, and jumped all over it. i really hope that the kids reading this don't think that all indians have bad attitudes because of your hateful, negative, and discriminating comments. if some idiotic surfer was blaming all of the indians, you would just think the surfer was prejudiced and not very intelligent.
Cece Stein July 30, 2012 at 02:52 PM
Very Informative Chuck .Thanks for sharing your expertise . I have recently been walking the beach in the mornings at Zuma near the Bonsall Creek Lagoon. Knowing how important the washed up wrack is to marine fowl, it disturbs me that Beaches and Harbor continually drags all the natural seaweed and kelp off near the mean high tide line. I believe the Snowy Plovers hang out there also. Do you know if there are efforts to protect any areas near Zuma Beach during the time the Snowy Plovers visits ?
Chuck Almdale August 01, 2012 at 07:24 PM
Hellwood: 100's of millions of visits (not individual people) at all of the beaches, not just at Surfrider. How many times do you visit beaches in one year? Multiply it out. Also: Surfers walk across the sand on their way to the water. While in the water, many leave their stuff on the sand. However, it seems to me (based only on personal, non-statistical observation) that surfers at Surfrider are far less intrusive on the plovers than are the casual beach walkers. You are correct in noting that the behavior of surfers was peripheral to the main topic of the article.
Chuck Almdale August 01, 2012 at 07:26 PM
Cece, The L.A. County Snowy Plover project, operating under the auspices of Los Angeles Audubon Society, is always trying to get local authorities to not "groom" the wrack off the beach near the various roosting sites (including Zuma) during the nine months the birds are on our beaches, and to set up symbolic fences and information signs (like we have at Surfrider), but so far, limited success. A lot of the problem has to do with the large collection of agencies with (what seems to me) overlapping authority and conflicting agendas. I could go on about this problem at length, but I'll leave it at that. When looking at the wrack, notice that there's usually (not always) a hoard of tiny hopping "flies" around it. That's the kind of invertebrate the Snowy eats. Fortunately for Snowies, they have few taste buds.

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