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Snowy Plover & Least Tern nesting update

July 15, 2017

We are still taking donations for the additional costs incurred by the unexpected nestings by Snowy Plovers at three Los Angeles County location, and the Least Terns at Malibu Beach. Use the “Donate to or Join SMBAS” button to the right and follow the instructions.
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Least Tern feeding young, Malibu (Chris Tosdevin 7-9-17)

There was a full moon high tide due on the 8th, so on Friday, July 7th, on one of our hotter summer days so far, a group of ten or so met – at noon – to put up a wall of sandbags. After all, the new moon high tide of 7.03 feet on June 23 had wiped out all the nests and unhatched, and if that could be prevented, all to the good.

Sandbags nicely lined up to protect the Malibu nesting colony from the approaching full moon high tide (Stacey Vigallon 7-7-17)

Creating a sandbag wall consists of:
A – Get sandbags and shovels
B – Shovel sand into the bags
C – Drink water
D – Pile up the bags in an orderly manner
E – Drink water
F – Re-pile as many bags as necessary, as the first attempt was a bit sloppy
G – Drink water and go home

Rocket science it’s not.

Shoveling the sand and (my specialty) holding the bag open for the shoveler are pretty easy, but hauling filled bags around takes effort.

We filled about 150 bags, but it wasn’t quite enough, so our USFWS bagger liaison drove off and rounded up another fifty bags. This gave us a nice long wall of gently leaning bags. Someone needs to tell these birds to nest more compactly.

Two cryptic Least Tern chick-juveniles, Malibu (Larry Loeher_6-30-17)

It may be my imagination but I’ve had the long-standing impression from others that these plovers and terns like clear sandy beaches. I’d helped weed the Venice Least Tern colony some years back, where I believe we hauled out a lot of sea rocket. But the behavior of these birds at Malibu makes me think that was completely wrong. They spend a great deal of time hiding in the woodpiles and Sea Rocket bushes. “Littledude” – the Snowy Plover chick – would disappear for hours on end into the Sea Rocket and small sand hillocks. The tern nests are usually – maybe always – located near some chunks of wood, and the hatched chicks are usually found near or in the wood. When they’re not running around, their gray-white-rusty plumage makes them look like wood, and they’re hard to locate.

Three Least Terns and one Snowy Plover, among the wood, Malibu (Grace Murayama 6-30-17)

We’re not sure what was going on in the photo below. It looked like an adult Least Tern is attacking a chick. No great harm done, as far as we could tell.

Least Tern juvenile apparently attacked by an adult, Malibu (Larry Loeher 7-07-17

While we built the sandbag wall we had a chance to watch the birds. The Least Tern chicks were just beginning to fly, and one, following a parent, flew about 30 feet. I was surprised at the length of wing feathers, as the bird was still covered by a fair amount of fluff.

Least Tern juvenile on the wood, Malibu (Larry Loeher 7-07-17)

One reason they might be on the wood and under the plants so much is because the temperatures have been high (80’s at the beach, 100-110° in the “valleys”)  and the sand is really hot. I couldn’t walk barefooted. While we  shoveled and bagged, I sat on either an empty bag or scooped away the top few inches of blazing sand to the cooler, damper sand beneath.

The Least Tern chicks occasionally stray out into the open, Malibu (Larry Loeher 7-07-17)

Stacey Vigallon, our local plover-tern maven and coordinator of volunteers, was of course there and showed her shoveling skills. On July 13, she sent out an update to the millions (no doubt) of plover-tern volunteers.

Malibu Lagoon: Over the past week, the Snowy Plover chick has definitely proven itself a fledgling – volunteers have finally seen it airborne! So, it can now be said that Snowy Plovers have officially fledged young in LA County for the first time in almost 70 years. Volunteers and biologists are also observing increased numbers of Snowy Plovers at this site as the season progresses (seven, as of yesterday and today), which is what we’ve typically observed over the past several years. Sand bags were successfully installed last Friday afternoon on very short notice with the help of Cal Parks staff, LA Audubon staff, and five magnificent volunteers. The Least Terns continue to hang on at the lagoon, despite a second tidal overwash and evidence of dogs present in the enclosure. Nests remain in the double digits(!), and newly-fledged terns have been observed flying.


Least Tern nesting among the wood and Sea Rocket Tern, Malibu (G Murayama 7-07-17)

It’s amazing how quickly the terns grow. Birder’s Handbook says 20-22 days for incubation of the eggs, followed by 19-20 days until they fledge (and fly off). Compare that to the Snowy Plover incubation period of 27-28 days, followed by 28-31 days until the fledge. They’re both quite small species; it’s surprising to me that the plover’s egg-laying-to-fledging-period would be 40% longer than the tern’s.

Now-juvenile Snowy Plover ‘Littledude”, Malibu (Grace Murayama 7-07-17)

A few days later, Chris “The Brit” Tosdevin dropped by the colony, and sent me a couple of nice closeups including this one (and the first photo above).

Least Tern on cryptic sand-like egg, Malibu (Chris Tosdevin 7-9-17)

The high tide came and went. Lu Plauzoles, long-time and very active member of SMBAS, dropped by on July 13 and sent out this report.

I spent only a little over an hour there, mostly refilling and repairing sandbags. There seemed to be five breeches, but no signs of damage inside the fence. Three bags, mostly on the east end, had been completely emptied and someone had filled them with dried sea grass, or such. Littledude plover seems to be browsing well away –50 ft.– from Dad, and I was able to count at least seven Tern nests.  No other plovers seen, but then I was busy with non-birding. Also a group of seven kids with parents wanted to know what I was doing with the sandbags. I was able to keep their attention for ten minutes! (It’s interesting to see that even when only 5 or 6, some kids seem to have things figured out.) A dark two-person tent that was close to the fence (westish of center) seems to “still” be there. It would be interesting to ask lifeguards if they see it when they arrive and leave the beach. A camper?

Sandbags roughed up by high tide and people, Malibu (Larry Loeher 7-14-17)

And the following day – Friday, July 14 (Bastille Day! – Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!) – Grace Murayama and Larry Loeher did their weekly checkup and update.

‘Littledude’ Snowy Plover juvenile now flies quite well, Malibu (Larry Loeher 7-14-17)

Seven Snowy Plovers.  At least 28 Least Terns.  Sandbags looked like they did a very good job protecting the colony (can we call this Malibu Lagoon nesting area a ‘colony’?), with some water going in, but not more than about twelve feed past the fencing.  We saw many sitting Least Terns on probable nests (three toward west, at least seven to east); saw eggs, too.  Mating, fish-bringing, fishing, and chasing away other birds continue. (many LETE harrassed an osprey for a long period.) We each saw a LETE chick fly; it might have been the same one.  There were also two chicks that were fluffier and smaller than the flying, older chick.

Least Tern chick turning into juvenile, Malibu (Larry Loeher 7-14-17)

We haven’t reported on Dockweiler Beach for a while, so we’re including this update on the other Snowy Plover site in Los Angeles County. [Remember – No county nestings since 1949 in Manhattan Beach.]

Dockweiler Beach fence exclosure and tire tracks going through the warning signs (Grace Murayama 6-27-17)

Stacey Vigallon send out a July 13 update on Dockweiler as well.

Plover Snowy chick, Dockweiler (Grace Murayama 6-27-17)

Dockweiler: Snowy Plovers are also returning to this site as the season progresses (seven, thus far). The chick has remained present over the past week and was observed today as well. So far though, it appears to be something of a late bloomer. No volunteers have seen it fly yet, but behaviors such as wing stretching and flapping while running have been observed. This chick is well within the estimated fledging phase at this point, and the parent has been less attentive over the weekend and this week. Plovers (including the chick) have been observed along the wrackline ~150m north of the fenced enclosure and the white buffer area. Those of you potentially headed out to Dockweiler this coming weekend for an observation session and to give the not-yet-flying chick some moral support and motivation may need to wander a bit north or south of the enclosure to find the flock.

Plover juvenile and adult, Dockweiler (Grace Murayama 6-27-17)

Many many thanks to all the federal, state, county, and Los Angeles Audubon staff employees, plus the numerous unpaid volunteers from various Audubon chapters – some who put in many hundreds of hours annually – for all their work and concern for these beautiful, and highly endangered, little birds. The birds – quite literally – would not be surviving without them.

Back at Malibu Lagoon, the shorebird are beginning to return, along with other visitors and local residents.

Ruddy Turnstone just returned from northern breeding grounds, Malibu (Grace Murayama 7-14-17)

Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets have been nesting for the past few years in one or more trees in the Malibu shopping center across Pacific Coast Highway. Eventually the young get big enough to fly and the adults start bringing them down to the lagoon. This bunch, though, look like adult birds. Perhaps they just taking a breather away from those demanding kids.

Great and Snowy Egrets galore, Malibu (Grace Murayama 7-14-17)

The Western Sandpipers, still in beautiful breeding plumage, began returning in late June.

Western Sandpipers still in alternate (breeding) plumage, Malibu (Grace Murayama 7-7-17)

Last and certainly far from least – even in this august company – a young Reddish Egret has begun dropping in. First reported by Lu Plauzoles a few weeks back (sorry – date missing), then reported on our local rare bird alert by Dan Cooper on July 13, then seen by Larry and Grace and photographed by Grace on July 14.

Reddish Egrets are still uncommon in SoCal, although they have become more numerous over the past few decades. They’ve appeared in the San Diego area for at least 20 years – probably a lot longer – and they’ve been breeding – I believe – at Bolsa Chica in Orange County for 5-10 years. I believe our chapter saw five there on our field trip there last fall. To the north, one or more has been hanging out at the Pt. Mugu NAS for maybe five years.

Our bird may be from one of those areas, or it may be from farther afield like the Sea of Cortez. It’ll be interesting to see if it decides to hang around, or continues to pass in and out, or moves on permanently. It’s wonderful to watch them dance as they feed.
[Chuck Almdale]

Young Reddish Egret, sighted 3 times in the past month, Malibu (Grace Murayama 7-14-17)

  1. Cathie Atchley permalink
    July 17, 2017 6:48 am

    Thank you so much for all the information- your dedication is impressive!
    Even though far afield here in Minnesota, I enjoy reading about the efforts on the coast- I hope to visit again one day soon.
    Keep up the good work!


    • Chukar permalink*
      July 17, 2017 2:05 pm

      Thank you. Feel free to join any of our trips when you’re here.
      I personally have not seen documentation anywhere else of the sort of nesting event we’re having now with the plovers and terns, so it seemed a good idea to document it as best I could. You never know what people will be curious about in the future.
      Don’t forget to check our Finding Birds in L.A. County pages if you’ll be birding on you’re own.


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