Posted by: gordon | June 17, 2008

Snowy Plovers

Plover Monitoring

The beaches at Point Reyes National Seashore are home to many creatures, but only one bird uses this fragile system to nest, the Western snowy plover, a bird that people rarely see.

A full grown adult of this threatened species could fit inside a person’s hand and most people could walk right over the nest of a snowy plover and never see it. This is part of the problem.

Kate Peterlein, a long time Point Reyes resident, has been managing the Western snowy plover monitoring and recovery program for the Point Reyes National Seashore since 2001. If you were to walk the beach with her, you would see nests, birds, and a tenuous future for such a small creature.

Each day she walks the beach finding the birds through her binoculars, counting them and observing the struggling population. The strong winds this year have made this nesting season particularly hard for the plovers.

Western snowy plovers, build their nests directly on open sand. They lay three small speckled eggs in a depression called a scrape. When snowy plovers pair off to breed, the male begins by making a scrape. If the female approves then the pair starts a nest. If the female doesn’t like the location, then the male makes another scrape. “A male could make one scrape or twenty,” Peterlein said. “It just depends on if the female likes the spot.”

The female picks a spot and she lays three eggs over the course of a few days, but she does not start incubating until the last egg is laid. This is why Peterlein walks the beach every day. It is essential for her to be able to find the bird’s nests before ravens or other predators do. “If we miss a nest, we will likely lose it,” Peterlein said.

Plovers

When Peterlein locates a nest, she assembles a cage around it called an exclosure. An exclosure is the opposite of a trap; it allows the plovers to come and go, but it keeps out predators. Ideally they are assembled when the first egg is laid to prevent egg loss to predators and disturbance to adult plovers.

Plovers incubate their eggs for almost a month. They are egalitarian when it comes to incubating their eggs. Males and females each sit on the nest half the time, switching duties at sundown and sunrise. When the pair switches incubating duties, there is an elaborate routine involving tail fanning, and tossing pebbles. “It is almost like they are saying to each other: Hi honey, I’m home,” Peterlein said.

When the eggs hatch, the plover chicks explore the world under the watchful eye of their father for almost a month. Like many ground-nesting, birds these tiny chicks are able to walk upon hatching. “You see this little golf ball with fur on it and toothpicks for legs running around,” said Eric Stearns, the park Service ranger coordinating the outreach and education portion of the project.

Stearns coordinates the volunteer snowy plover docent program at Point Reyes. The program teaches volunteers how to talk with visitors about sharing the beach with the nesting plovers.

“Plovers are a resource that is very tough to interpret,” Stearns said. “They are not like tule elk or elephant seals because most visitors will never see this species. Plovers are a resource critical to protect but very hard to share with the public. Because plovers rely on camouflage for protection, the very nature of these small birds provides for challenging observations.”

Volunteer Plover Docents

People and pets on the beaches can disturb nesting plovers. So, on weekends during the summer, volunteers help visitors understand how to maximize their enjoyment of the seashore while also giving snowy plovers a chance to survive. By 2 p.m. the Sunday before Memorial Day, the two volunteer docents, Frank Binney and Jennifer Tripp had talked to more than 100 visitors at the Abbott’s Lagoon trailhead. By educating visitors about closures and offering suggestion as to how best enjoy the beach without disturbing birds, visitors to Point Reyes National Seashore are given the opportunity to help this threatened species survive.

The docent program was started to decrease the number of chicks lost during weekends due to human disturbance. Looking at the numbers, Binney said the program is a success. Chick loss on weekends has decreased significantly since the program was instituted.

“We teach themes,” said Binney, who has been volunteering in the park for 12 years. “Sharing the beach with wildlife means we can all enjoy the beach with a little consideration. It is win-win.”

Protecting these birds is part of the National Park’s mission, but these birds are more than just a natural resource to the people who work with them. “It is a hard job working really close to a species struggling as much as this one,” Peterlein said. After eight years of working with a team at Point Reyes, Peterlein is sure the effort is worth it. “It is really emotional, but there is great satisfaction helping restore native species.” With the help of vegetation ecologists who are coordinating a coastal ecosystem restoration to provide more habitat for plovers and volunteer outreach docents, snowy plovers nesting at Point Reyes National Seashore are being given the chance to survive in their native habitat.

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