Monterey Bay a bright spot in the snowy plover recovery

Apr 24, 2015

Carleton Eyster walks up a sand dune toward the water at Moss Landing State Beach.  He has binoculars around his neck and a scope mounted on a tripod in his hand.

“This is our birding scope, which a lot people mistake for a camera, so I’m often taken for a bird photographer,” says Eyster, a biologist with the non-profit Point Blue Conservation Science.

Point Blue has research programs in the works from Alaska to Antarctica.  On the Monterey Bay, Point Blue has been monitoring the Western Snowy Plover for more than 30 years. 

The snowy plover has been listed as threatened under the endangered species act since 1993 after its numbers dwindled because its beach nesting habitat was compromised by a number of things including development, non-native plants and predators.

“This is the area that is cordoned off seasonally from March through September, and that’s exactly where the snowy plovers are breeding,” says Eyster as he walks along the cable fence the symbolically blocks off the sand dune.   It was put up by California State Parks, which manages this beach.  

Eyster is one of five Point Blue biologists on the bay whose focus is this tiny shorebird.  They monitor the birds at least five days a week during their season.  They keep track of things like nest location, number of eggs, how many make it to adulthood and figuring out why so many don’t.

“Probably in the egg stage its predators: red fox, northern harrier, red tail hawks.  Human disturbance is certainly a factor,” says Eyster.

We come upon a typical nest; a clutch of three eggs resting in the sand.  The birds will attempt to incubate these eggs out here in the open for 28 days.  If these eggs hatch, it takes another 30 days before the new snowy plovers can fly.   It’s a vulnerable two months.

“And a male, if he can fledge one chick, in other words get one chick to flying age then that’s going to get you to a stable population,” says Eyster.

Eyster will be there to see if that happens.  He’ll then mark each new plover with unique color coded tags and continue to watch it throughout its life.

All this monitoring helps public and private land managers know things like where to put up the cable fencing and which predators are a threat.

“There’s no way that this bird is going to be delisted without those type of partnerships,” says Jim Watkins is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  He leads the snowy plover recovery from his office in Arcata.

The recovery plan for the bird was finalized in 2007.  The goal is to maintain an average of 3000 breeding adults for ten years between Washington State and Southern California.

“The areas where we’ve had the most reproductive success, the most hatching and also hatching that results in chicks fledging, being able to be recruited into the breeding population have been in the Monterey Bay Area and also up in the state of Oregon,” says Watkins.

The recovery unit that includes the Monterey Bay has met its goal of 400 breeding adults, four out of the last seven years.  Whereas some other units have never reached their goal.

Watkins says others have varying challenges like large areas to cover, less staff to monitor, and in southern California, lots of people out enjoying the beach.   Which Eyster points out can happen with enough resources.

“For instance, there’s a large wintering flock at Seabright Beach.  And people wonder how that could be.  But there’s one of our largest flocks, up to 100 or more birds, in the winter there every year in spite of all the people and dogs,” says Eyster..

The estimate for delisting the Western Snowy Plover is 2047, but as new threats emerge like sea level rise, both Watkins and Eyster see this bird as being dependent on conservation for its survival.  

Point Blue offers these tips for beach goers.

1. Watch for signs, stay out of closed areas to avoid crushing nests and disturbing chicks.

2. On dune beaches, walk along the wet sand, to avoid stepping on nests and to give chicks ample space to feed.

3. Keep dogs on leash and only bring them to beaches that allow dogs.

4. Don’t chase plovers, or any birds, resting on the beach. Teach your kids how to walk around resting birds.

5. Get involved!  Are there Snowy Plovers nesting at a beach near your home?  Do you have questions, curiosities, ideas, energy to help?  Contact your beach owner or manager about starting a program to help nesting snowy plovers, or email pointblue@pointblue.org for assistance.