Sex, sand and snowy plovers are coming together this spring as the endangered species – which is less than a month into its six-month breeding season – continues to bounce back from years of population decline.
The western snowy plover breeds from approximately March 15 to Sept. 15 each year, and many of Santa Barbara’s plovers mate at Sands Beach in the Coal Oil Point Reserve, reserve director Cristina Sandoval said. Reserve officials set up rope fences to protect the birds and their eggs in 2001 as part of the Snowy Plover Management Program. During the plover’s breeding season, the fence is extended west toward the end of the reserve. Sandoval said the program has helped the endangered plover population recover from many years of low birth rates, and visitors can still observe the plovers from a distance or use binoculars supplied by the program’s docents.
Sandoval said 47 baby plovers were hatched in the reserve last year, and she expects the local plover population to produce nearly the same number of chicks this year. She said the plovers at Coal Oil Point are starting to produce consistently high numbers of babies, after 17 chicks were hatched in 2004 and 39 in 2003.
“I think the population will stabilize at about 40 chicks a year,” Sandoval said. “We have about 20 breeding pairs and we’re out of room on the beach. We found the first nest on March 15, so the plovers started right on time.”
Sandoval said there are approximately 1,000 western snowy plovers on the entire West Coast, and Sands Beach has the largest concentrated plover population in the nation, with a wintertime population of 400. She said the Snowy Plover Management Program, which mostly consists of public education and the construction and maintenance of fences around the plovers’ habitat, has become an example for other communities looking to protect the birds.
“Our program has been so successful because it is so simple and easy to implement with limited resources,” Sandoval said. “Many beaches are now using us as a model.”
Kevin Lafferty, a marine ecologist for the Channel Islands Field Station, said the Snowy Plover Management Program receives $25,000 annually from the Santa Barbara Audubon Society and the Life Sciences Dept. at UCSB.
Lafferty said small predators are one of the birds’ main threats during the mating season.
“Last year, we had the craziest skunk year ever – they were everywhere, running on the beaches all night long,” Lafferty said. “You never know what you’re gong to be dealing with each year.”
Sandoval said predators, and humans who disturb the plovers’ habitat, not only threaten the birds but can also affect the species’ ability to reproduce. She said the Snowy Plover Management Program has solved many of the problems affecting the plovers during their breeding season.
“A couple of years ago, an unleashed dog killed a chick, and we used to have a problem with crows as well,” Sandoval said. “Our docents started enforcing leash laws, and we put mesh over the nests to prevent crows from taking the eggs. Now we’re able to successfully protect the plovers and maintain the beach as a public area.”
Lafferty, who has been a researcher for the Snowy Plover Management Program since 1999, said the docents are largely responsible for the program’s success. He said many docents are UCSB students, and they are the ones who conduct most of the program’s outreach and education.
“The docents are [the people that visitors] will most likely run into on the beach,” Lafferty said. “They’re there to help people understand the rules and let anyone who wants to look through the binoculars and check the birds out.”
Kyle Hart, a third-year dramatic arts major, said he recently started volunteering with the program because of his interest in the small bird species.
“I just saw a sign on the fence at Sands advertising the docent program, and always wondered what the roped off section of the beach was for,” Hart said. “I wanted to volunteer with the program [because] I really like the birds and I wanted to see their natural habitat.”
Sandoval said the western snowy plover could potentially be taken off of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered and threatened species list because of its similarity to the inland species of snowy plovers. She said if the two species were classified as the same animal, the birds’ population would be high enough to remove it from the list. Sandoval said she thinks it is important for the western snowy plover to remain specifically protected by the federal government.
“The two birds don’t breed with each other,” Sandoval said. “That should be enough to show that they’re two different species.”
Sandoval said students interested in helping to protect the plovers should attend the next docent training program this Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Coal Oil Point.