Threatened Snowy Plovers Make a Comeback on a Santa Barbara Beach, Thanks to a Public-Friendly, Award-Winning Program
As of December 28, 2003, there were 361 western snowy plovers wintering on the public beach at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB)'s Coal Oil Point Reservea record high for the area since a program to protect the birds was begun in 2001.
A simple fence separates the snowy plovers from people using the beach for recreation. These small, 6-inch shorebirds, listed as a threatened species in 1993, had seemingly abandoned this site for breeding, but after protection of a 400-yard stretch of sand began in summer 2001, the numbers of breeding snowy plovers increased steadily. Last summer, the site fledged 39 young snowy plovers. The number of snowy plovers wintering at the site has increased as well, more than doubling since the program began.
The success of this combined effort of researchers, managers, and volunteers earned national recognition for three groups for balancing beach recreation and the protection of snowy plovers: the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Santa Barbara Audubon Society, and the University of California Natural Reserve System.
The Natural Areas Association presented the groups with its Resource Stewardship Award on September 26 at the association's annual meeting in Madison, WI. The Resource Stewardship Award recognizes this partnership for demonstrating excellence in the stewardship of natural areas through creative and innovative strategies to resolve issues and advance the preservation of natural resources.
"The research predicted that disturbance rates would drop from their previous high levels, but I had no idea that the plovers would respond as dramatically as they did," said Kevin Lafferty, a USGS marine ecologist and adjunct professor at UCSB, whose research helped managers plan and evaluate the conservation effort. "This is the first evidence that a reduction in disturbance can lead to the recovery of a formerly abandoned snowy plover breeding site."
On the Pacific Coast, North American snowy plovers, named for their pale plumage, breed from Washington State to Baja California. Although plovers historically bred at Coal Oil Point, the site produced no snowy plover chicks from the time it opened to the public in 1970 until the summer of 2001.
In a USGS study, Lafferty assessed the rate of different types of human disturbance and found that human use of parts of the beach shared by the plovers interfered with the shorebird's ability to find a predictable place to rest and nest undisturbed.
He then determined the smallest part of the beach that could be closed to maximize protection of plovers with minimal inconvenience to beach users. The proposed enclosure would stretch from wet sand to dry areas above the tidal zone but would allow people to walk at the water's edge along the beach.
The University of California protects 34 natural reserves in California for its research, education, and public-service missions. Coal Oil Point Reserve has a beach area that is popular with students and local residents for its good surfing and unspoiled landscapes.
In summer 2001, a single snowy plover chick was seen near a recent dune-restoration project, prompting the UC Coal Oil Point Reserve director, Cristina Sandoval, to install a rope fence that denoted the boundaries of the core plover habitat, thereby buffering the chick and its father from disturbance. After the chick fledged, she left the fence in place to reduce disturbance to the 120 plovers that winter at the site. The fence helped people to walk around the plover habitat instead of through it, and disturbance rates plummeted.
Sandoval, who oversees the plover project, implemented a comprehensive Snowy Plover Management Program in 2001 based on the USGS research and the experience of the previous breeding season. The plan included roping off 400 yards of dry sandy beach, closing a trail that directed people through the plover habitat, installing educational and regulatory signs, and beginning an education program led by volunteers.
The plan worked quickly and with unprecedented success. In 2002, 10 plovers chose to breed in the protected area; they made 9 nests with 21 eggs, of which 16 hatched, and 14 chicks fledged. In 2003, these numbers increased to 24 breeders, 24 snowy plover nests, 63 eggs, 45 hatched eggs, and 39 fledglings.
"We are encouraged by how fast the plovers responded to active management and how the community collaborated with the plan," Sandoval said. "I think the secret of this success was the dedication of the various individuals to plover conservation and their openness to go beyond traditional thinking. Partnerships and creative solutions were the key." Sandoval presented these findings in September at the 2003 Natural Areas Conference.
A volunteer-docent program designed and founded in 2001 by Kendy Radasky, chair of the Santa Barbara Audubon Society's Science Committee, is coordinated by Jennifer Stroh, also with the Santa Barbara Audubon Society. The docent program has played a vital role in gaining beachgoers' compliance, providing education, discouraging offleash dog walking, and scaring away crows trying to steal eggs from the nests to eat.
On a beach where only a few years ago almost no beachgoers could identify a snowy plover, almost everyone walking the beach can now recognize the shorebird. According to Stroh, "The program helped beachgoers understand about snowy plovers and how to share the beach with them.
"The community is now incredibly supportive, and more than 100 individuals have volunteered. It's an amazing place to come to the beach and watch plover chicks literally run around your legs. When they have a refuge to retreat to, they no longer see humans as such a threat."
Other shorebirds have benefited from the program, too: researchers counting birds in the snowy plovers' protected area have noted increasing numbers of such shorebirds as sanderlings, western sandpipers, whimbrels, black-bellied plovers, long-billed curlews, western gulls, and Heermann's gulls.
Sandoval plans to maintain the fence and volunteer program, which is hailed as a model system by the California Coastal Commission and now being emulated at other areas in the State.
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