Can the threatened Western Snowy Plover make a comeback at Dockweiler Beach?

A Western Snowy Plover forages along the shoreline at Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey Photo by Ted Soqui

A Western Snowy Plover forages along the shoreline at Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey
Photo by Ted Soqui

( Click here for stories about human efforts have given several threatened
or endangered species a fighting chance in the Ballona Wetlands)

By Rebecca Kuzins

At first glance the group of elementary school students failed to notice anything special about a patch of sand on the northernmost part of Dockweiler State Beach.

But when they scanned the area with binoculars, two very small burrowing shorebirds appeared magically before their eyes.

Western Snowy Plovers are easily camouflaged by their gray, brown, black and white plumage and unusually small size — at most slightly more than six inches long. This natural ability to hide in plain sight while roosting in open patches of sand can also be their undoing.

Often invisible to the joggers, dog-walkers and maintenance truck drivers who unknowingly threaten their survival, these tiny birds have come under intense scrutiny by environmentalists at Dockweiler, Santa Monica and a handful of other Los Angeles and Orange county beaches where they still roost.

Western Snowy Plovers must live and breed on beaches that are rich with kelp, which contains the small invertebrates that compose their diet. The birds were once abundant along the California, Oregon and Washington coast — their sole habitat — and would nest in Los Angeles, Malibu and the Ballona Wetlands during spring and summer and roost throughout Los Angeles County in winter.

Development along local beaches has destroyed much of the Western Snowy Plovers’ natural habitat, however, and they have not been known to nest in Los Angeles County since 1949.

The number of plovers wintering on local beaches has also plummeted. In 1993 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Western Snowy Plover a threatened species as defined by the Endangered Species Act, meaning they are likely to become endangered throughout most if not all of their range. In 2007 the agency adopted a Western Snowy Plover recovery plan, which estimates that it will cost almost $150 million to help the birds recover enough to be removed from the threatened species list.

The challenge is that plovers nest and roost on popular public beaches, where they are often disturbed by those who fail to notice them and wouldn’t think to look.

“We’ve only seen a couple of plovers that have actually got run over [by vehicles driving through their habitats], but we presume there are a lot more,” said Lu Plauzoles, a member of the Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society who has volunteered to conduct Western Snowy Plover counts on Santa Monica Beach since 2001.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the Los Angeles and Santa Monica Bay Audubon societies regularly count the number of Western Snowy Plovers on local beaches and are working to ensure their preservation. The two Audubon groups have also convinced local officials to erect plover enclosures at Dockweiler and Santa Monica beaches in order to protect the birds from beachgoers, vehicles and dogs.

Plummeting Plovers

Education is another part of the mission.

Stacey Vigallon, who directs the Los Angeles Audubon Society’s plover project, conducts field trips at Dockweiler Beach to teach students about the birds. In January she led a tour for fourth- and fifth-graders from Charnock Road Elementary School in Palms, who viewed the plovers through binoculars and spotting scopes. At the end of the trip, Vigallon asked the students to raise their hands if they had seen a Western Snowy Plover. More than 50 hands quickly sprung up, with students visibly proud of their sightings.

“The Western Snowy Plover is part of L.A.’s rich biodiversity, and it’s a species that inspires younger generations of Angelenos to connect with and care for that local biodiversity,” Vigallon said. “The Western Snowy Plover’s cuteness factor also makes it an easy species for people to connect with — everyone smiles when they get a chance to see one for the first time. Making a real, in-person connection to local wildlife helps inspire people of all ages to care about nature in their city and beyond.”

The student field trips to Dockweiler are a significant component of Los Angeles Audubon’s plover outreach program, which aims to increase public awareness about the birds. Plauzoles and Vigallon also conduct an annual plover walk near the Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica.

In addition, Los Angeles Audubon organizes volunteers to assist Vigallon and project biologist Tom Ryan with plover counts on Los Angeles and Orange
county beaches. These counts are conducted each January, March, May and September, while Ryan and Vigallon count the birds during the other eight months.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists six Los Angeles County beaches as critical habitats for Western Snowy Plovers: Dockweiler North, Dockweiler South, Santa Monica, Zuma, Malibu and Hermosa.

Official results of last month’s  survey are not yet available but, according to Ryan, “the counts are down a little bit this year” at Zuma, Malibu and Dockweiler because of beach erosion due to swells from recent hurricanes that hit the west coast of Mexico.

The Western Snowy Plover population has increased overall since the 1993 threatened species declaration but is subject to fluctuations. For example, there were 334 plovers spotted on L.A. County beaches in the winter of 2004, but the number declined to just 196 in 2007. The population increased to 326 in 2012, but dropped again last year to 251.

Vigallon said no one understands why the population fell so drastically in 2007 and 2008, but the decline led Los Angeles Audubon to have Vigallon and Ryan undertake more serious efforts to protect Western Snowy Plovers.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife winter surveys for all of California showed similar Western Snowy Plover population fluctuations during the same period, said agency spokeswoman Ashley Spratt. In the winter of 2003-04, wildlife officials counted 4,522 Western Snowy Plovers throughout the state. The population plummeted to just 3,205 in 2008-09 before bouncing back to 4,169 in 2013-14.

“A variety of factors contribute to annual changes in the number of plovers each year,” Spratt said. These include changes in “annual survivorship” due to “weather, food availability, disease or depredation … beach disturbance, changes in beach topography, and habitat availability.”

She credited increases in the Western Snowy Plover population between the counts in 2007-08 and last winter to public education programs and additional efforts by the Audubon Society, other nongovernmental organizations and government agencies to “reduce threats to nesting plovers by reducing beach use conflicts, managing predators and restoring public habitats.”

Plover Patrol  

Plauzoles regularly visits a portion of Santa Monica beach just south of the Annenberg Community Beach House, where he and other volunteers keep their eye on a colony of wintering plovers. In 2013 he saw 64 birds, but “now we’re lucky if there are 34 or 35,” he said. This decline, he added, is due in part to loose dogs that entered the wooden plover enclosure, scaring the birds and causing them to roost outside of that safe area.

This “symbolic fence,” as Plauzoles calls it, is made of wooden stakes and rope. It is erected each winter and “gets rolled up in early May when the plovers are gone,” he said. Santa Monica Bay Audubon has provided funding for the fence, which Santa Monica city employees install to house the wintering plovers and take down after roosting season.

Similarly, a three-sided waist-high wooden fence on the northern portion of Dockweiler protects roosting plovers.

The fence gives plovers “a place where they can just rest,” Ryan said. “Winter is a time when the plovers forage and rest and get ready for the next breeding season. So it’s quite important in their ecology to be able to have a place where they can safely rest and forage.”

Both the Santa Monica and Los Angeles Audubon societies have tried to persuade county beach officials to keep maintenance crews away from plover roosting sites, but with little success.

“Part of the problem that the plover is having in Los Angeles is the perception of needing to keep the beach as a nice, white, sandy beach, so the county goes in and cleans up the driftwood and kelp. And that’s what the plovers feed on — the kelp,” Ryan said. “We’ve been recommending [the county] examine beach grooming for a while.”

While he acknowledged maintenance is needed in the summer because “there’s a public safety element and there’s activity,” Ryan said plover advocates have “never seen the logic of why [maintenance] needs to be done all winter when there are days when there’s more equipment on the beach than there are people. It’s been a point of contention that we don’t necessarily agree with the county on.”

Plover protection is not without its victories, but these sometimes run counter to people’s wishes.

Plauzoles helped defeat a popular proposal by the Santa Monica City Council to create an unleashed dog park on a portion of Santa Monica Beach.

“When a portion of a beach gets declared an unleashed dog beach, people presume that dogs can be unleashed all over the beach, not just in one specific area, and it would be a nightmare for the city to enforce [the boundaries],” he said. “California State Parks said no, which was lucky for the plovers.”