Crack open the Courvoisier and put Barry White on the stereo, but don’t step over the rope fences because the snowy plovers are, impelled by a seasonal biological drive, in the mood for love.
The snowy plover breeding season has volunteers and program directors working to help protect the endangered species. Although the season officially lasts from March through September, plover nests appeared at Coal Oil Point as early as Feb. 27 of this year.
“The number of nests we have right now is the total number of successful nests last year, and we’re only a few months into the season,” Jennifer Stroh, director of the plover docent program, said. “I think we’re doing very well.”
Stroh said the early nesting of the plovers has mostly been attributed to this season’s warm weather.
“It’s probably a combination of factors. The birds bred here last year, so hopefully they feel like it’s a safe place for them to come,” Stroh said.
In the 2001 breeding season, two eggs were laid at Coal Oil Point, but only one hatchling survived. Last year the program had a 76 percent success rate. Out of nine nests, 14 chicks fledged.
“The overall population is still declining, unfortunately. There are only 1,200-1,500 plovers currently,” Stroh said. “This just goes to show what a unique site we have. It is important to preserve Coal Oil Point for it to become a major breeding ground.”
As many as 200 plovers spend the winter at Sands Beach, but in the past the birds would leave Coal Oil Point to breed elsewhere. Stroh said the plovers return to the site where they hatched, so the 14 chicks that hatched at Sands last year should be returning to breed again this year.
Much of the credit for the successful breeding of the plovers is given to UCSB, whose plover management plan is part of a UC-wide reserve system, Stroh said.
“It is the responsibility of the reserve to protect endangered species, and [UCSB] is lucky enough to have the plovers,” Paul Desruisseaux, assistant vice chancellor of public affairs, said. “We’re trying to provide a secure space for the birds and not limit access to the beach for recreational users.”
Several organizations, including UCSB, the Audubon Society and the California Coastal Commission have provided funding for the plover reserve.
“UCSB has been crucial from the beginning,” Stroh said. “They helped start the initial program in 2001 with Chick Watch.”
The Coal Oil Point reserve was founded in 1970 and covers approximately 158 acres of land. The reserve recently won the Resource Stewardship Award, an annual award given by the National Association for Natural Resources.
Visitors can expect the rope boundaries of the breeding ground to change from time to time in response to storms that have eroded the beach, opened the slough and pushed plovers toward the entrance of Sands Beach. Users of Sands are encouraged to walk along the ocean’s edge, keep pets on a leash, clean up litter and play ball games on the Devereux side of the point to avoid disturbing the plovers.
Despite past controversy over public access to Sands Beach, the director of the reserve Cristina Sandoval said the biggest threat to the plovers is crows.
“We already lost one nest to the crows this year,” Sandoval said. “They’ve learned to recognize us and wait until we turn our backs to swoop down and raid the nests.”
The Audubon Society has funded the Snowy Plover Docent Program. Volunteers for the program act as scarecrows as well as public resources.
“The docents help others identify the plovers and chicks and provide information to people on Sands. They’ll answer any questions and make sure people are voluntarily complying with the reserve regulations,” Stroh said. “Right now we are in need of more docents. The ideal situation is to have two people on the beach at the same time because we cover such a length of beach, this is just more realistic to scare away the crows.”
Sandoval confirmed the need for more plover guardians.
“We want docents on the beach 100 hours per week to cover all the daylight hours,” Sandoval said. “The docents are doing pretty much the same thing they did last year, just being careful and paying close attention to the nests.”
Despite the pressures of ensuring the survival of a species, the docents manage to enjoy themselves while they patrol the beach.
“We’re having much more fun this year because of interactions with the public,” Sandoval said. “It’s been real exciting. We’ve been getting a lot of calls from people who want to start their own programs.”
Stroh said the docents receive internship credit and a variety of opportunities to help the plovers.
“There’s plenty of other ways to get involved, the docent duties are just the most urgent,” Stroh said.
Since docents are mostly students, the program could potentially be understaffed during the summer months.
“We’re hoping the summer school students will volunteer to help us out,” Sandoval said. “That’s going to be the big challenge for us.”
Anyone who wishes to become a plover docent is encouraged to contact Jennifer Stroh at 880-1195 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.