The snowy plover has had another successful breeding season, thanks to four years of combined efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Coal Oil Point Reserve staff, Santa Barbara Audubon Society, and local residents.
During this year’s six-month breeding season, which began Mar. 15 and ended Sept. 15, a total of 17 snowy plover chicks hatched and survived, Coal Oil Point Reserve director Christina Sandoval said. Last year, 39 chicks survived.
Sandoval said she was not concerned by the decreased birthrate and attributed the decrease to plover vulnerability.
“Oscillation is very natural,” she said. “They are very susceptible to predators. It only takes one predator to wipe out a breeding area.”
Sandoval said the flat, broad dunes where the plovers nest provide little protection for the eggs, and cited an incident in Guadalupe this year in which a raven ate 19 plover nests – roughly 69 eggs – in one weekend.
The reason for the lower number of surviving chicks on Coal Oil Point Reserve this year, Sandoval said, was an unusually high number of skunks, which ate many of the plover eggs.
Jennifer Stroh, coordinator of the reserve’s Snowy Plover Docent Program, also said she was not concerned about the 22-chick discrepancy between last year and this year.
Stroh said the Snowy Plover Drafter Recovery Plan includes a target number of breeding pairs for each plover nesting site, as determined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Although the number of fledged chicks was down from last year, Stroh said they still exceeded the predicted number needed to contribute to the overall recovery of the plover population. In 2001, she said, only one of the two chicks that hatched survived. By 2002, fourteen chicks hatched and survived, she said.
Sandoval said she personally counts the birds on the reserve once or twice a week.
Currently, she said, approximately 250 plovers call the reserve home. To track individual adult plovers, Sandoval said a band is affixed to one leg. She said there are between ten and twenty banded adults on the reserve this winter season.
Stroh said she attributed the increase in plover hatchling survival to the success of the docent program and to support from the community.
“None of it would have taken place without each volunteer’s individual contribution,” Stroh said. “The contribution that each person has made has been essential to the success of the program. It’s all about the volunteers and interns.”
Right now, there are docents on duty 60 to 70 hours a week, Stroh said. Docents work from daybreak to sunset, seven days a week. Stroh said one third of the docents are UCSB students, and many are individuals from the community. The youngest docent, she said, is a seven-year-old boy who watches over the reserve with his father on Sundays.
Stroh said she enjoys the relative peace of the winter season on the reserve.
“This time of year, winter, is very cool because there is not such urgency to protect the nests,” Stroh said. “[The docents] can talk to people.”
Sandoval said the program encourages dialogue with beachgoers who are worried about competing with the snowy plover for beach space.
“If the person is open, we try to educate them and we usually get good results,” Sandoval said. “Most people concerned with beach space are concerned with the environment.”
However, even with a concerned community, Sandoval said she does not think the snowy plover will ever be taken off the endangered species list.
“California is only going to grow. It is only going to become more crucial,” Sandoval said. “Let’s say we are very successful: we can take them off the endangered species list, but the management still has to exist. We still need beach protection.”
If the snowy plover is not on the endangered species list, Sandoval said, it is less likely they will get the beach protection the need. She said the need for protection of endangered wildlife is why the reserve is so important.
“I don’t feel I have the right to bring any species to extinction,” she said. “Knowing that a species is gone is a very sad thing, and, finally, with my background in evolution I know the thousands of years it takes to make a species. The process is very beautiful – it’s difficult to imagine losing that forever.”
Stroh said the reserve is important because it allows people to see the difference they can make, whether it is a positive difference or a negative difference.
“[The reserve is] an opportunity for people to observe and experience an endangered species in its natural environment,” Stroh said. “One small area, managed properly, can make a huge difference for a threatened species.”
Those interested in helping continue the preservation of the snowy plover and Coal Oil Point Reserve can contact Jennifer Stroh at (805)880-1195, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.