Snowy Plovers Come to Roost
Park district has taken measures to protect birds
Joggers, picnickers and birdwatchers at Alameda’s Crown Beach will notice a recent installation in the landscape: cautionary signs that instruct beachgoers to stay at least 20 feet away from the roosting snowy plovers.
Late last year the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) undertook a $5.6 million rehabilitation project that delivered 82,600 cubic yards of sand by barge to Crown Beach. "It seems that the plovers have been especially attracted to Crown Beach since we placed new, clean sand on it," said Matthew Graul, the park district’s chief of stewardship. "This sand may have a consistency that the plovers like."
The federal government lists snowy plovers as a threatened species. Beachfront developments and disruptive human recreation in the areas where the birds typically rest and breed have contributed to their decline. In California today, snowy plovers occupy less than half their original breeding sites.
"This status requires that special measures be taken to protect the plovers from harassment or disturbance," said bird watcher Leora Feeney of the birds’ declining numbers.
However, the placid environment that plover protection requires is difficult to achieve, especially with the constant threat of dogs or humans scaring off the adult birds.
For health and safety reasons, dogs are already prohibited on the beach. However, the park district has found it difficult to enforce and constantly monitor this ban across the 2.5-mile stretch of shoreline.
Additionally, the plovers’ small size and excellent camouflage make them extremely vulnerable. Oftentimes beachgoers do not see the plovers until the birds are so close to them that they have inadvertently disturbed them.
Golden Gate Audubon Society volunteer Cindy Margulis spotted the plovers on Crown Beach last fall, and has since returned to monitor them. "Snowy plovers have been documented during three out of the last five years on Crown Beach," she said. "The plovers do seem to like roosting at the top of that new sand berm as it provides a good vantage point for them to see even when they’re hiding themselves."
Last year’s Golden Gate Audubon Society’s Christmas bird count tallied 12 snowy plovers on Alameda’s shoreline. However, this figure represents only a small fraction of all California’s snowy plovers.
Though plover breeding has not been recorded on Crown Beach for many years, the birds do spend their wintering period here. These small birds need to conserve as much energy as possible during the wintering period, and it would benefit them greatly to roost without the threat of disturbance.
When passersby frighten off the plovers, the birds channel a tremendous amount of their energy into flying. They return weak and vulnerable. A physically taxing cycle ensues, leaving the plover in dire conditions and undercutting their share of the sandy domain.
"Plovers that can’t get adequate rest because they are perpetually being stressed and forced to get up will use all of their energy and will not be conditioned well for daily survival or for breeding success," Margulis said. In order to preserve the existing plover populations, it is imperative that steps be taken to mitigate the stresses placed on the birds.
Wary of the ecological consequences of inadequate plover protection, Margulis is pleased with the cautionary beach signs but hopes to see more protective measures implemented in the near future.
"The most important thing that EBRPD hasn’t done is put up a ‘symbolic fence’ around the area of the beach the snowy plovers favor for roosting," she said. This would include a rope or cordon around roosting areas to prevent people from stepping in.
No federal or state regulations currently mandate the installation of a symbolic fence, but Graul said that "the district invests significant personnel and capitol to protect nesting snowy plovers on island nesting habitat at Hayward Regional Shoreline."
The park district advocates the use of island nesting because it provides the plover isolation from several land-based predators, creating a safe environment for reproduction where the birds can incubate with their eggs undisturbed.
Besides the newly posted signs, the park district has taken a series of precautionary steps, such as more strictly enforcing the dog ban and asking the Golden Gate Audubon volunteers to inform beachgoers about just how fragile these nesting sites are.
"Education and a resulting understanding from beach users is needed to maintain these birds in our community and keep their population from declining further," Feeney said.
Janet Chen is an Alameda Sun intern. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.