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News from the West Coast Snowy Plover Meeting

January 29, 2011

Every year in January a number of professionals and amateurs concerned with the fate of the threatened Western Snowy Plover meet at a West Coast site to exchange information and give reports on the status of those little birds we see eight months of the year at Malibu Lagoon.

Tire tracks are a preferred roosting spot (L.Plauzoles)

Nearly ninety interested stakeholders attended the January 19-20 meeting at the Museum of Natural History in Pacific Beach. This is the  twelfth such meeting to my knowledge. Of the three I have attended, this was by far the best focused with a trove of technical knowledge, volunteer stories and pointed discussion. Welcome to Plover Tech!

Most locations of winter season roosts and breeding sites on the West Coast have been reliably mapped over the past ten years. To add to this knowledge base a report from Jim Lyons of US Fish and Wildlife presented the first North American survey to estimate the size of the inland and Gulf Coast populations of Snowy Plovers. The largest US breeding population is in Oklahoma! An early estimate of the total number of birds is in the range of only 26,000 for the entire continent. This report was closely followed by an enlightening exposé from Eduardo Palacios of  CICESE in Mexico who managed the Mexican survey. San Quintin in Baja California seems to be the largest reliable site for the plovers in Mexico.  The official results of this survey should be published next year.

How many Snowy Plovers can you find? Answer at bottom. (C.Almdale)

As is traditional in these meetings, each region (or Recovery Units in the Recovery Plan) of the Pacific Coast gave a short synopsis of the status of the birds, breeding, survival and variations in populations. For our Los Angeles County, in short, the population seems to be recovering from a radical decline on most beaches in Spring 2007. The exception is Zuma Beach which recently was counted at 90 birds, versus some 200 in 2005. Malibu Lagoon with 86 birds in early January, and Santa Monica with 58 birds last week have reached record levels for the ten-year period. Dockweiler Beach and Redondo have over 20 birds at each of three sites since October. Many of the areas north and south of us which have had some success in breeding continue to face predation problems, especially from Common Ravens and other avian species.  Many of the regions have established or about to set up camera systems to monitor predator attacks and develop appropriate defenses.

The conference was hosted at the Museum by Monterey Audubon and organized by

Monterrey's unlucky denizens are forced to live in such surroundings (L.Plauzoles 1/11)

Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO) and the Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Significantly both Gary Page and Lynne Stenzel of PRBO who co-authored the seminal study on West Coast Snowy Plovers in 1981 addressed the audience with long-term statistics and trends about the Monterey area flocks that they have studied for years and whose members are almost all banded to allow detailed behavioral study. Gary Page addressed the changes in predation in some detail and Lynne focused on the sex lives of the little birds.

The liveliest discussions were about adult survival, especially over-winter survival which Humboldt State University Professor Mark Colwell considers key to the survival of the species—more important than breeding productivity. Other “hot” discussion subjects centered on “take” permits that allow stewards of nesting sites to haze or dispose of ravens and other predators, stable isotope studies that gave us insight into the methods and habits of ravens, and a new validation study that is used to extrapolate from the bi-annual “window” surveys to come up with a reliable census figure for the species.  Also of interest were the experiences of CA State Parks’ experiments in removing European Beach Grass and the SF Bay Bird Observatory program to restore the wetlands that had previously been Cargill’s salt ponds. The area is now the largest California Gull breeding ground.

An entire afternoon session was occupied by a considerable number of examples of experiences by groups and individuals in successfully protecting plovers. The upcoming US Park Service rule concerning dogs in National Parks and Monuments was a climax. Look for it soon on your NPS website! It is announced at nearly 2500 pages, mostly due to the ongoing conflict between San Francisco leash-free advocates and Golden Gate Audubon Society. GGAS requests your comments to NPS as soon as the 60-day comment period is open.

My presence at the meeting was subsidized in part by Santa Monica Bay Audubon and I will be glad to share any of the information that I obtained with our members, those of other Audubon entities or various agencies. The opportunity to meet with other concerned plover activists and professionals will certainly add to our efforts on the LA County coast.    [Lucien Plauzoles]     [Answer:  Six]

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2 Comments
  1. marilynjudson permalink
    January 30, 2011 7:58 pm

    Nice article, Lu! Thanks for all your hard work on behalf of these lovely little shore birds. I have a question about predation by ravens and/or crows. I had understood that crows were the greater problem for plovers. Not true?

    Also, since the crow population in Santa Monica and L.A. area has exploded these past few decades, are you aware of any moves to “take” those aggressive birds? I believe some of our speakers at SMBAS speakers have advised that crows, house sparrows, and other plentiful species are a threat to CA native and migratory birds, yes? Thanks for your or others’ thoughts on this.

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    • LucienP permalink
      January 31, 2011 8:06 pm

      Marilyn, the raven population is the more noticed by the scientists and Audubon monitors because the breeding population of plovers tends to be in areas less proximate to dense population areas. Therefore, areas such as Monterey Bay (Carmel), the Redwood Coast area, the Coal Oil Point UC Reserve at UC Santa Barbara have been able to ascertain why a nest is predated or abandoned and the filmed-in-the-act bad guy is often the very efficient Common Raven. New filming by remote cameras also shows that the Northern Harrier is also dining on the chicks and eggs of the plover. There is no nesting on any of the beaches of Los Angeles County where the American Crow is the more common corvid, therefore there is no data, since most species are not hunting adults of plover species. Aside from one attempted strike by an American Kestrel, I know of no predation of the wintering flocks of plovers on our local beaches. On the “take” question, I would have to do a very careful study to find any justification for “take” of the species you mentioned. There are exceptions to the protection accorded under the North American Migratory Species Act. The only species I recall hearing about was the European Starling. In other words, were a person to kill a starling, the US Fish and Wildlife Service would not be legally obligated to arrest that person and prosecute in Federal Court. The same might apply to the House Sparrow, non-native, but with the precipitous drop in numbers in the British Isles, someone might make a case for their protection in the New World. If there is a demonstrated threat to a ESA-listed species, both Federal and State agencies have the option to harass and/or kill species that threaten the Endangered Species Act bird species. This is done, for example, to a certain number of crows who tend to frequent the Least Tern nesting grounds in Marina del Rey. Now, if you want to see a USFWS agent squirm, ask him or her why something can’t be “done” about the (endangered) Gull-billed Terns that predate the (threatened) Snowy Plovers in San Diego Bay! Who is your BFF?

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