Coal Oil Point Reserve welcomed a record number of new snowy plover chicks this year, and the newborns are being heralded as a sign that the local population of the endangered birds is soaring.

A total of 47 snowy plover chicks — the most in the reserve’s five-year history — were hatched and fledged during the 2005 breeding season, compared to 17 new chicks in 2004 and 39 in 2003. Thanks to the plover population boom during this year’s six-month breeding period, which lasted from March through September, an estimated 400 of the nation’s 1,500 endangered snowy plovers now reside at Sands Beach in Goleta, Coal Oil Point Reserve Director Cristina Sandoval said.

Plover Docent Program Coordinator Jennifer Stroh said the number of chicks born annually at the reserve has been quite high recently, and the plover population at Coal Oil Point is likely to reach its peak in the years to come.

As the population increases, however, legal protections for the plovers could start to decrease, Stroh said, and the snowy plovers’ rising survival rate could potentially lead to the birds’ removal from the endangered species list. She said some people have begun to question the need for special protection for the snowy plovers now that they are breeding successfully in the reserve.

“Recently, the delisting potential of the plovers has attracted a lot of attention,” Stroh said. “There is new legislation being proposed that could hinder the process of saving the animals from being endangered.”

Stroh said the snowy plovers still face a multitude of dangers today, and could easily disappear if removed from federal protection. The staff at Coal Oil Point Reserve, which is partially funded by the Audubon Society, has been researching new ways to care for snowy plovers, Stroh said, and the rising survival rate of plover chicks can be credited to programs such as a plover nursery program in which reserve staff take care of neglected birds.

“This year we made a stronger effort to watch over the nests from the time the plovers lay and hatch their eggs,” Stroh said. “If an egg or bird is abandoned for some reason, we will take care of the bird and feed it.”

Volunteer plover docents have also spent the past year helping local police enforce county beach codes and reporting people whose behavior on the beaches endangers the birds, Stroh said. She said the docents are also working to educate beachgoers about the potential damage humans and unsupervised dogs can do to plover nesting sites.

Sandoval said the biggest threat to the plovers is recent land developments, which have decreased the birds’ natural habitat but allow their main predators to flourish.

“Fifty acres of scrub habitat is not large enough to support large predators such as mountain lions and coyotes, which kill mid-size predators including skunks, raccoons, opossums and even domestic cats,” Sandoval said. “Because of this, these smaller-size predators have increased in number, and feed heavily on plover nests and chicks, and on other birds as well.”

Sandoval said losing the snowy plover, which was placed on the endangered species list in 1993, could have serious consequences for the reserve’s ecosystem.

“If plovers were to become extinct, Sands Beach would look [devoid] of life,” Sandoval said. “Plovers encompass a large portion of the shorebirds here. Plovers are prey to other animals such as hawks, owls and mammals, but they also eat huge numbers of flies and hoppers. We do not know what their absence would do to the [ecology] of the beach.”