Snowy plovers, with helping hands, increase in seashore

David Briggs
Devon O’Rourke, a volunteer ranger, mans a scope at North Beach, where a handful of snowy plover nests are under constant scrutiny by biologists hoping to bolster the success of new hatches. 
07/03/2013

In spite of ravens, wind and sprawling invasive grasses, Western snowy plovers’ nests have nearly tripled at Point Reyes National Seashore since last year. 

Still, the seashore’s snowy plover biologist, Carolyn Campbell, worries. Half of the federally threatened birds’ 20 nests have failed this breeding season, which began in March. Just two of seven failed last year.

Ms. Campbell surveys a roughly six-mile stretch from Kehoe Beach to North Beach five days a week, combing the sand for nests, called scrapes. Around the most vulnerable sites, she sets up a 5-foot-wide by 5-foot–high circular cage, known as an exclosure. 

Though the breeding season ends in September, it can take 60 days for a snowy plover’s offspring to reach maturity: about three to nest, three to mate and lay eggs, 28 to incubate the eggs, and 28 before the chicks fly. That leaves less than two more weeks for the birds to get started, or more likely, to start over.

Two nests hatched last week, though, bringing the number of nests with chicks to four. Six more are still incubating, and a couple of those clutches may hatch this week.

“We’re hanging on, and I’m optimistic,” David Press, a wildlife ecologist for the seashore, said. “Every year we’re learning more about what’s working, what’s not working. There isn’t one thing that we can do to recover the species. It’s going to be a lot of little different things.”

The approximately 2,500 Western snowy plovers that breed from Washington State to the Baja, California peninsula were listed as threatened in 1993. Ms. Campbell and Mr. Press do not know where the seashore’s current 10 breeding pairs originated, but they’re working toward a target of 64 breeding birds at the seashore.

Park biologists are doing a number of things to bolster the plovers’ survival: exclosures, fighting the European beach grass that is steadily consuming the dunes where the plovers nest, and curbing predators miles from the shore.

The snowy plover biologist position lost funding due to sequester cuts this year, but the Point Reyes National Seashore Association stepped in. The seashore has also lacked funding for a coordinator for the snowy plover docent program, but Mr. Press is hopeful he will find support next season. 

Money for a banding program that will begin in 2015 has already been approved, and Mr. Press has applied for a $50,000 grant from the Coastal Conservancy to restructure the plover program to focus more on “coastal ecosystems in general, with snowy plovers being an important component of that.”

Raven management efforts are underway, too. The birds, already the plovers’ natural predator, thrive on trash and animal feed, and some have learned to hunt plovers at their exclosures. Forty-five new calf huts will soon be installed on B Ranch in an effort to discourage the booming raven population. 

The plovers are unwittingly taking all the human help they can get, and the people who work with them are campaigning, barricading and hiding wherever they can to give those chicks every shot at flight.

Jim Rolka manned a table on Saturday at the Abbotts Lagoon trailhead. As one of the seashore’s snowy plover docents, he puts a jovial face on an issue unknown to most park visitors.

“It’s hard to get interest up for the snowy plovers,” Mr. Rolka said. “Most people will never see them.”

A stuffed toy plover lies on the docent table and, when squeezed, emits two shrill calls that sound like phaser guns from the original Star Trek. Mr. Rolka said the toy’s short trills are true to life. 

The table also features a model nest featuring clay eggs, which Mr. Rolka shows visitors when he explains what they ought not to approach. 

A retired electrical engineer who began volunteering year-round in 2007, Mr. Rolka describes to passing hikers how both the female and male plovers incubate the eggs. The female leaves when the eggs hatch so she can mate with another male. He jokes that the female looks at the nest littered with eggshells and says, “I’m leaving.”

The male plover builds a scrape by forming a shallow depression in the sand and lining it with shells, sticks or other beach debris. The scrape’s tidy array of shore detritus and the plover’s white and grey-brown feathers together camouflage the eggs and the parents as they rotate their perch during incubation. Female plovers can take days to pick a desirable location to nest, seeking a spot above the high-tide line but far from encroaching grasses or animals. 

At busy sites like North Beach, Ms. Campbell also surrounds scrapes with yards of wire strung between posts, giving the nests up to a half-mile berth. 

The plovers’ primary defense is blending in. So if a threat gets too close, the birds  will wiggle their wings and tail feathers—Ms. Campbell calls it “a broken butt”—in order to feign injury and lure a predator away from their eggs or chicks and toward the adult birds. 

When Ms. Campbell sees this, she hides. 

“I kind of disappear and try to get the chicks to pop out, and get a count of how many chicks as quickly as possible,” she said. “I will not stay with that nervous male for more than 15 to 20 minutes, because I don’t want any occurrence where he might get separated from them.” 

Devon O’Rourke, a volunteer ranger, manned a telescope on Saturday just outside the newborn chicks’ fenced nesting site at North Beach. She invited passersby to see the “little tiny fluff balls” scurrying around their nest. The newborn chicks can walk up to a mile on their first day.

With the plover docent program halved this year from a peak of a dozen volunteers in the past decade, Ms. O’Rourke helps out on weekends, telling beachgoers about the birds and herding dog-owners away from the plovers’ side of the beach.

Ms. O’Rourke, who formerly worked as a backcountry ranger at Olympic National Park in Washington, doesn’t seem daunted. 

Conservation is just a long road.

“Having been several places, I get the sense that we’re going to need to get individual people working on individual pockets of the earth for years and years and years,” she said. “Overall, I think that it’s a bunch of tiny puzzles all over the world, and there have to be individuals working on little pieces, and it seems very overwhelming but also really interesting and cool. There’s so much to do, but it’s not unattainable.”