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Snowy Plovers of Malibu Lagoon – The Beginning

May 18, 2017

The following seven-part article, written in August, 2012,
first appeared on Malibu Patch, a local blogsite.
It focused on the Snowy Plover winter roosting colony
on Surfrider Beach, adjacent to Malibu Lagoon.

We reprint it now to reacquaint our readers with the local history of these birds, because for the first time in over seventy years,
Snowy Plovers have again nested on Los Angeles County beaches.

Part I – The Birds Themselves
Few people know it, but some very rare birds live on Surfrider Beach. They spend most of their time resting in little hollows in the sand, like the ones your heel makes. Countless people saunter through their flock, never noticing them until they scurry away from underfoot.

Western Snowy Plover adult pair on Surfrider Beach (J. Kenney 3/26/10)

Western Snowy Plovers are small, even for a bird, only 6 ¼” long, much smaller than your foot. Their cryptic gray, brown, white and black plumage blends perfectly into the sandy beach. They’ll crouch for hours, motionless in sandy hollows. They’re hard to see even when searching for them.

Snowies, like all shorebirds, are carnivores; more accurately, insectivores, eating any invertebrate or tiny fish they can find.  Their preferred foraging area is wrack (washed-up sea vegetation) left at the high-tide line, often abundant with kelp flies and small invertebrates.  Their short stubby

1st winter Western Snowy Plover & wrack, Surfrider Beach
(Jim Kenney 1/31/10)

bills, typical of plovers, are unlike the long and thin bills of sandpipers, who often probe – even underwater – for prey in sand and mud. Snowies don’t; they pick their food from the wrack or sand.

Because they prefer to forage in wrack, the best feeding time is just after high tide when waves are retreating; wrack is fresh and full of living invertebrates. They will go onto wet sand to forage, but they avoid waves, however small.

Sanderling flock on Surfrider Beach
(J. Kenney 11/29/09)

The flocks of small gray-white-brown birds which rapidly scurry on little black legs, following and fleeing the wavelets as they wash in and out, will almost certainly be Sanderlings. They are slightly larger than Snowies, with long, pointed black bills. They run a lot. They resemble Snowies, feed with Snowies, even roost within Snowy flocks. It takes experience to reliably tell them apart in the field. Found nearly worldwide, Sanderlings are abundant.

Sanderling duo in nonbreeding plumage (J. Kenney 11/19/09)

Snowy Plovers are far from abundant. We’ll discuss that in a later part.

Unlike the “I’m late, I’m late” scurrying of the Sanderlings, Snowies move in a pensive, hesitant, almost thoughtful manner. They take a few steps, 3–15 perhaps, and pause, often with one leg cocked, ready for their next step, whenever they decide to take it.  All of the world’s 67 Plover species walk this way.

Click HERE for a slideshow of banded Snowy Plovers, then scroll down
to the slideshow located below the photo of the banded chick.
It may take some time to load.
Use the arrows to advance and reverse.

By the time the tide begins to rise, they’ve stopped foraging. They rest together in a small area, their roost, slightly inland of the beach berm (high ridge) between the lagoon and ocean, separated by a few inches to a few feet from one another, in small sand hollows they make, find, or improve upon. When it’s quiet with no predators or noisy humans nearby, they may sleep, although at least one lookout stays awake. When feeling frisky, they’ll chase one other around, jumping in and out of each other’s hollows.

Like you and me, Snowies need to rest and recharge their batteries. For millions of years, their lonely, windswept, barren beaches were sufficiently safe and undisturbed places to live, forage and breed. Times have changed.

How many Snowies can you find in this picture?
(C. Almdale 3/28/10)

Part II – History and Problems
The Plover family goes back a long way. Their oldest fossils, found in Colorado and Belgium, date from about thirty million years ago, but some scientists say they’re at least ten million years older. The Plover family is currently comprised of about 67 species (debate continues) and found on all continents and many islands except Antarctica. Nine species breed in the continental U.S. and Canada; six species appear regularly in California, four at Surfrider. The Snowy is the smallest.

1st winter Snowy Plover among exposed rocks at low tide, Surfrider Beach
(J. Kenney 11/12/09)

The entire world population of Western Snowy Plover (WSP) – about 4,000 birds – breeds exclusively on Pacific coastal beaches: about half in the U.S. from San Francisco southward, a few farther north, the rest in Baja California. After breeding they spread out in a post-breeding dispersal to winter on sandy beaches from Puget Sound south to Central America. There is also an inland group of Snowies numbering about 18,000 birds. Many of this group winter with the WSPs in mixed flocks on western beaches but most winter on the gulf coast.

Close-up of wintering Snowy Plover, Surfrider Beach ( J. Kenney 2/15/07)

Population decline of WSPs was noticed many decades ago. Little was done until Pt. Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO) became involved and did its first study of WSPs in 1977-80; results suggested that the birds had already disappeared from significant parts of their coastal California breeding range. Further studies were made. In 1993 WSPs were federally listed as threatened, and later listed as a Species of Special Concern by California. PRBO’s 1995 study showed a further 20% population decline since 1980.

Snowy Plover in tire track, Surfrider Beach (L. Plauzoles 11/2/08)

In the early 1990’s local Malibu resident Mary Prismon, long-time member of Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society (SMBAS), began censusing the local WSP flocks at Zuma and Surfrider Beaches and reporting the results to PRBO. Her love for the birds enticed other SMBAS members to join her, until counting the birds and looking for bands became a regular part of the chapter’s activities.

In 2000, PRBO announced the first Winter Window Census of the California West Coast, set for mid-January 2001, coinciding with censuses in Washington and Oregon.  Mary asked Chuck Almdale to help and, because no one else volunteered to do it, he organized the Los Angeles County portion. He designed a protocol, divided the coastline into short segments, and recruited experienced birders to walk their segments on the same day at the same time. The weather was not good: the monthly high tide coincided with a storm surge. Nevertheless, the entire sandy beach of LA County, about 75 miles, was walked. The results were surprising.

Western Snowy Plover NO:WW, banded at Vandenberg AFB Summer 2009; wintering on Surfrider Beach
(C. Almdale 11/22/09)

As the result of that first Winter Window Census in January, 2001, we found that Western Snowy Plovers in Los Angeles County were concentrated into only seven locations which were their winter roosting sites; outside those locations they were extremely uncommon. These segments were, from north to south: Zuma Beach, Malibu Surfrider Beach (next to Malibu Lagoon), northern Santa Monica Beach, Northern Dockweiler Beach, Southern Dockweiler Beach, Redondo Beach and Cabrillo Beach. Each of these seven segments was less than 100 yards long. All of the volunteers knew the appearance and something about the behavior of these birds. A few of us knew that they were easier to find at certain locations such as Malibu Lagoon and Redondo Beach. But none of us knew that they were nearly impossible to find outside of a 100-yard circle around these few winter roosting spots. For all practical purposes, out of seventy-five miles of L.A. County coastline, Snowy Plovers restricted themselves to a total of 700 yards of beach.

We will continue with Part III tomorrow.
[Chuck Almdale]

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