Joining Forces to Save the Snowy Plover
Two determined Southern California biologists are on a mission to save one of our cutest, and most besieged, birds. Joggers, surfers, and dogs had better watch out.
It seems remarkable that Cristina Sandoval and Stacey Vigallon had never met, never even talked on the phone, till the day I bring them together on Sandoval’s home turf in Santa Barbara, California. For the past few years the two biologists have communicated only through email chains about a cause to which both have dedicated their professional lives: staving off the extinction of the western snowy plover.
The sparrow-sized shorebird has been federally threatened on the Pacific coast since 1993, and in 2006 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejected an effort to delist it. About 2,000 breeding pairs live along the U.S. Pacific Coast, 90 percent of them in California. One of the last best hopes for the species rests on the 1,500-acre Coal Oil Point Reserve, a beach and coastal wetland owned and operated by the University of California-Santa Barbara and an Audubon-designated Important Bird Area. Audubon regards a portion of the reserve as one of the top 10 birding spots in the nation west of the Mississippi. Sandoval, a biologist at the university, oversees an award-winning program that has brightened prospects for the plover and many other shorebirds.
Her efforts center on Sands Beach. In winter the 400-yard sliver of coast hosts the nation’s largest concentration of feeding and resting snowy plovers, as many as 400. Among them are 20 breeding pairs, which produce some 50 chicks each spring in a place where there had been none for several decades until nine years ago, when Sandoval began cordoning off their habitat and educating the public. “The plover biologists said maybe you’d get a nest or two because it’s such a small, dense place,” says the Brazilian-born scientist, who left her country because she grew too depressed watching sugarcane fields replace native habitat. “We were all wrong. We now have 20 pairs each year that are staying in breeding season and are a few feet away from each other.”
Vigallon’s focus is on L.A.’s Dockweiler Beach, cheek by jowl with LAX Airport. Although today she has traveled a mere 100 miles to Sands Beach, her experience as the Los Angeles Audubon Society’s director of interpretation is a world apart from Sandoval’s experience in Santa Barbara. Dockweiler hasn’t seen a plover hatch since the 1940s; the “snowies,” as they’re affectionately called, simply can’t compete with the hordes of human visitors each summer, though Vigallon’s talents are inspiring elementary and high school students to rally to her cause.
Like most endangered creatures, the snowy plover is an “umbrella species,” serving as a surrogate for protecting other wildlife sharing the same habitat. In the presence of healthy plover populations, researchers have noted higher numbers of such shorebirds as sanderlings, western sandpipers, whimbrels, black-bellied plovers, long-billed curlews, and western gulls. To understand you need look no further than the contrast at Sands Beach between the areas that are open to and off-limits to beachgoers. On one side much of the beach has been worn about as smooth as a billiard table by the foot traffic of surfers, joggers, and strollers. The other side, beyond the rope “fence,” is untrammeled sand dunes—“the most dynamic and fragile natural formations,” according to the California Coastal Commission. Sandoval received an award in 2003 for her plover program from The Natural Areas Association. On steep ridges, the vibrant colors of native wildflowers, including red and pink sand verbena, are aflame against the sand’s tan canvas. “There are species here you can find few other places,” Sandoval says. “Most people are unaware that a beach system like this can host so many plants and wildlife. A lot of them live underground.”
Bending down, she points to intricate grooves in the sand formed by the underground movements of ciliated sand beetles. She digs one up and holds it in her hand, letting it meander across her palm. “Audubon volunteers are always asking what makes that track in the sand,” Vigallon responds. “So mysterious!” Sandoval explains these beetles have wings but are flightless; it’s believed they move on driftwood. She gently puts this one back down and it promptly disappears, burrowing back into the sand. Scurrying about is the globose dune beetle, a federal species of special concern, owing to its dependence on California’s coastal dunes.
“This is what a real beach looks like,” Sandoval says, walking toward the shoreline. “The plovers love this type of overwash with rocks and kelp wrack.” This wrack consists of heaps of kelp filled with flies, maggots, and beach hoppers—a veritable avian feast. Vigallon is brimming with envy. For much of the year Dockweiler and other beaches in Los Angeles are routinely groomed with trucks to clear them of human detritus and to make the sands as welcome as the French Riviera’s. “We have literally miles of people,” she explains with a shrug. “There’s broken glass, diapers, Buffalo wings. It’s a safety hazard. If you don’t remove that, the beaches are horribly polluted.” The problem is that the cleanup crews eliminate the sand dunes as well. And there go the nesting spots.
In the distance beyond the ropes we catch our first glimpses of the feathery wisps, which weigh just two ounces. Hopping around, they look like cotton balls on chopsticks. Run and freeze. Run and freeze. They scamper and stop to avoid detection by predators. Sanderlings, for which plovers are frequently mistaken, do the same thing. Sandoval imitates the move, doing a little jitter and sticking her rump out.