ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly
June 17, 2004


The Plight of the Plover [chicks on nest]
A tiny shorebird provokes strong emotions --
both in Humboldt and up and down the California coast

On the cover: Plover chicks. Photo by Ron LeValley.



[Snowy Plover standing in sand, bands on legs]PERHAPS THE MOST STRIKING THING ABOUT THE WESTERN SNOWY PLOVER is its vulnerability. The small shorebird nests in open expanses of beach, where there is no vegetation to speak of and little in the way of shelter. The nests, touching in their simplicity, are nothing more than shallow depressions in the sand, lined, often, with pebbles or pieces of white shell; they tend to be located next to a modest landmark of some sort, such as a small stick or a piece of dried kelp. The eggs female plovers lay in these little hollows are surprisingly large; while speckled, their predominant hue, like the plumage of the birds themselves, is, pale -- a sandy shade of pale, to crib from Procol Harum.

[RIGHT: The plover's big eyes allow it to hunt for insects at night.

BELOW LEFT: Plovers often incubate near small sticks.
Photos by Ron LeValley]

Like the darkish marbled murrelet, which nests in the bare limbs of redwood trees, the snowy plover depends on camouflage. Unable to fight off predators, they seek to evade them through a strategy so passive it almost seems bold -- they hide in plain sight. It's not simply that they blend in with their background. It's that they are capable, as one observer put it, of sitting "stone still" for extended periods. To think that exposure is a poor survival tactic is to miss the point. The open strand is their evolutionary niche, and they must make the best of it. Cover, for the plover, is actually detrimental -- it is necessary to their survival that they see trouble coming from a long way off.

Still, there's no getting around the fact that from the get-go, and even before, the life of a plover is a crapshoot. If high tides don't wash away a nest, then high winds may bury it in sand. And while newly hatched chicks hunker down and don't move much, after a couple of weeks they start running all over the place, unaware -- or at least not aware enough -- of the dangerous world they're scurrying around in. To divert a potential predator's attention, adult males, who rear the chicks, resort to self-sacrificing displays, feigning a broken wing or dragging their tails, as if to say, "Eat me, not them!" The female, who has done most of the incubating, has in the meantime left the scene. As if she knows the daunting odds facing her chicks, she has gone off in search of another mate.

"The strategy of this bird is to put out a lot of eggs and hopefully a lot of chicks," said Jim Watkins, a biologist with the Arcata office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "That's how they survive [as a species]."

Unfortunately, this species' survival has for some time been at risk because of the outsize impact of another creature -- human beings. And the bird's protection has become a hot issue among biologists and environmentalists in recent weeks in Humboldt County as conflicts have erupted between fishermen and officials with Redwood National and State Parks after restrictions were imposed to protect a pair of chicks found in late May at Gold Bluffs Beach. And just this past weekend, vandalism of two plover nests at Clam Beach raised tensions further.

People and plovers, of course, have existed side-by-side for thousands of years, if not longer. But it is only in recent decades, with the twin explosions of human population and human technology, that the impact of Homo sapiens on the plover has apparently become too great for the bird to bear. Here's Watkins again: "The plover can put up with high tides and a certain amount of predation, but they can't deal with the constant disturbance and habitat modifications [brought by people]. They're just not adapted to deal with it."

What does a plover make of a kite? It sees a predator, a misconception that might cause an incubating female to abandon her nest. What does a plover make of a tire track in the sand? It sees a place to get out of the wind, a response that makes it vulnerable to being crushed the next time a vehicle comes by. What does a plover make of a once open shoreline completely taken over by European beach grass, an aggressive plant introduced a century ago to stabilize drifting sand that has spread up and down the West Coast? Nothing, since plovers can't exist in such a place.

It's where they still do exist, on flat, spacious beaches stretching from Baja California to southern Washington, that conflicts have arisen. The plover, to be sure, has a precarious lifestyle. But what is perhaps working against it more than anything else is simply that it occupies the precise seaside environment humans like to recreate in. The plover has survived for millennia, but whether it can survive humanity remains to be seen.

[three young plovers running on sand]
Juvenile male plovers gamboling on the beach. Photo by Ron LeValley

Nests raided

If the events of the past weekend in Humboldt County are an indication, the prognosis is not good.

Some time last Friday night, two plover nests on the south end of Clam Beach were vandalized. According to an e-mail made available over the weekend by Ron LeValley, head of Mad River Biologists and the leading plover expert in the region, two people walked north from Vista Point along the beach and directly to an "exclosure" -- a low-lying structure of wire mesh placed over nests to protect eggs from predators. "The exclosure had the top torn or cut away just enough to get into the nest," the e-mail said. Another exclosure was torn open in the same way, although, unlike the other one, there were no footprints leading to and from it -- an indication, the e-mail speculated, that this exclosure was hit first, before the wind died down.

[enclosed nesting area]LeValley, who didn't write the e-mail -- someone assisting with his research did -- called the vandalism "really disturbing." He said that based on the straight line of the tracks to the one exclosure, it appeared to be premeditated. He said that six eggs were lost -- plovers typically lay clutches of three eggs per nest -- and that combined with the abandonment of a nest a few days before, and the loss of a brood on the north end of Clam Beach sometime on Saturday or Sunday, presumably to natural causes, the protection effort at Clam Beach, which was producing some nesting success, is presently reeling.

[LEFT: Wire mesh "exclosures" prevent crows and ravens from snatching plover eggs. Photo by Ron LeValley]

"If you'd asked me on Friday, I'd have said things were going great," LeValley said on Monday from his office in McKinleyville.

Watkins, speaking on Tuesday morning, did not indicate whether Fish and Wildlife would send up a law enforcement agent to investigate. A portion of the beach between the north and south parking lots has been roped off for several weeks to create a brooding area for chicks. Warning signs to stay out of the roped off area have also been posted.

Watkins said Clam Beach is not the only place where nest exclosures have been vandalized this year. Similar incidents have happened at MacKerricher State Park north of Fort Bragg and at McGraff State Beach in Ventura County.

He said the penalties for harming a federally protected species in this manner include up to one year in prison and a fine of at least $50,000, and perhaps as much as $100,000. Plovers were designated a "threatened" species in 1993.

[plover on nest inside fencing]If the destruction of nests at Clam Beach sounds familiar, that's because it's happened before. Last year, to be precise, when an exclosure was pulled off a nest site in the vicinity of the area where a week before someone, using oil, had burned a swastika into the sand. A couple of years before that the top of an exclosure was cut off, but in that case, LeValley said, the eggs were not taken.

Clam Beach is not the only place where there are ongoing and potential plover conflicts. Other examples:

Less than a month ago, officials with Redwood National and State Parks closed off vehicle access to Gold Bluffs Beach after finding two plover chicks the Monday before Memorial Day weekend. The closure is slated to be lifted next week, by which time the chicks will have fledged (learned to fly). But the fact that the closure targeted commercial fishermen, who hold permits allowing them to drive on the beach to load and haul fish, has provoked charges of heavy-handedness and discrimination -- and led to the filing of a lawsuit by one of the fishermen, Ed Salsedo, of Orick, and the threat of an additional lawsuit by some of the other fishermen. Complicating the picture is the fact that the state park did not obtain an emergency permit from the California Coastal Commission as it evidently was supposed to prior to the closing -- although, since three weeks have gone by since a request was made without the commission doing anything, it does not appear such authorization would have been granted as fast as the situation called for. As Valerie Gizinski, a resource ecologist with state parks, put it: "It is very possible the birds would not be here if [Redwood State and National Parks] hadn't done something." Had the birds been harmed in some way, Gizinski added, the state could have been in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

[eggs in plover nest]In April, Fish and Wildlife began work on a "biological opinion" that will look at gravel mining's impact on plovers nesting on the network of gravel bars below where the Van Duzen feeds into the Eel River -- the only place in North America, and perhaps the world, where snowy plovers nest in a riverside environment. The study was launched in response to a "consultation" request from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which instead of issuing yearly permits to gravel miners as it has in the past, is seeking a five-year permit that would cover all the operations of the four companies that mine gravel along the lower Eel. The consolidation is a streamlining measure, but Kelley Reid of the Corps' regulatory branch said it would also make it easier for the Corps to assess "cumulative impacts" on the environment.

While it remains to be seen what Fish and Wildlife's biological opinion will find -- the agency will be paying particularly close attention as the lower Eel is considered "critical habitat" for the plover, a designation that gives the federal government extra leverage to impose restrictions -- the stretch of river, in contrast to Gold Bluffs Beach and Clam Beach, has been something of a success story. More plovers nest there than anywhere else in Humboldt County, not least because gravel operators have agreed -- actually, they didn't have a choice -- to restricted operations during the long plover nesting season, which lasts from March into September.

Genetically identical?

It is important to understand that it is not the western snowy plover that is in trouble. It's the Pacific Coast population of that bird, a federally protected "threatened" species, that is at risk. The interior version of the bird is quite widespread and apparently doing well -- breeding grounds range from interior portions of Oregon and California to as far east as Kansas and as far south as Texas. Spots relatively nearby where inland plovers breed include Honey Lake near Susanville and Malheur Lake in southeastern Oregon. One of the better-known plover nesting grounds is the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

[plover on nest]A different kind of plover, the Cuban snowy plover, breeds along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to western Florida and south through the Caribbean. A few years back, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was considering placing the Cuban snowy plover on the endangered or threatened list and contracted with another federal agency, the United States Geological Survey (USGS), to see if there were any genetic differences between it and the western snowy plover. While USGS oversaw the study, it was actually done by an Oregon State University graduate student named Leah Gorman, who made it her master's thesis. Ironically, the finding in her 2000 study that drew the most attention had nothing to do with the genetics of the Cuban plover; instead, it had to do with Gorman's contention that the interior and coastal populations of the western plover were genetically identical.

Questions had been raised about interior and coastal plovers when Fish and Wildlife first listed the latter -- but those questions were raised and dismissed. In its "final rule," an 11-page determination of the coastal bird's imperiled status published that year in the Federal Register, Fish and Wildlife stated flatly that the two populations were "genetically isolated." Gorman's study challenged that, and today, while agency officials insist that her genetic analysis was so flawed as to be inconclusive, they acknowledge that the agency misspoke in the final rule. "We have had a few cases of coastal birds nesting at interior sites," Watkins said last week. "We should have said they were reproductively isolated."

[men on horseback]This is more than just an esoteric distinction. If the two populations are breeding in significant numbers, then it becomes reasonable to wonder what the difference between them is. It becomes reasonable to wonder, in other words, why the coastal population is on the threatened list at all. As Dennis Mayo, a vocal critic of plover protection efforts here in Humboldt put it, "There are plovers all over the damn place."

[RIGHT: Plover expert Ron LeValley, foreground, with Dennis Mayo, right, on horseback. On left in the background is Andy Harnden, an associate of Mayo's. Photo by Bob Doran]

That's precisely what a group of residents in Lompoc, on California's central coast, honed in on after they had their access to nearby beaches restricted to protect the plover. With the assistance of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit public advocacy group that has mounted several challenges to government endangered species actions, the Surf-Ocean Beach Commission, as the Santa Barbara County group called itself, filed a petition in June 2001 to delist the Pacific coast population of the plover. When Fish and Wildlife failed to act on the petition within 12 months as required by law, additional petitions were submitted in 2002 and 2003. Finally, the citizens group, joined by the city of Morro Bay in adjacent San Luis Obispo County, filed a lawsuit in February of this year. The next month, in March, Fish and Wildlife announced it would conduct an in-depth review to determine if there is any significant mingling between the coastal and interior populations.

While certainly a victory, the citizens' group action was successful simply because Fish and Wildlife failed to act in a timely manner. "I hate to say it, but it was sort of a procedural issue," said Greg Broderick, an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation's Sacramento headquarters. The courts typically defer to the judgment of federal agencies on environmental and scientific matters, so it is likely that whatever Fish and Wildlife decides a year from now will stand.

[RIGHT: An adult male plover doing the broken wing act. Photo by Ron LeValley]

At the moment, it's clear that the agency does not believe there is any significant genetic exchange going on between the two populations. Interior plovers, seeking to escape cold wintertime temperatures, do winter on the coast, but they breed inland; and there is scant evidence that coastal plovers ever stray far from the Pacific.

Mark Colwell, a professor at Humboldt State who conducts research on plovers with LeValley, said genetic distinctiveness is a red herring. The real issue is whether, in the event the coastal population is lost, the interior population would serve as a replacement. Given that the birds have evolved in radically different habitats, Colwell said, "it is not likely [that the coast would] be repopulated by birds moving from the interior to the coast." LeValley also expressed skepticism, saying such a shift would not likely happen "in my lifetime, or in the next 100 years."

Not Grand Central Station

Northern California is not the heart of the bird's range; Central and Southern California is. Half of all the coastal plovers in the state nest in three coastal counties: San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura. An additional 25 percent can be found along the coast between Sonoma and Monterey counties. The large swath of coast running from the Oregon border down to Mendocino County, in comparison, harbors just 4 percent of the coastal breeding population, with almost all of them -- some 50 or 60 individuals -- nesting in Humboldt County. The Redwood Coast, evidently, is too rugged to provide the bird with much in the way of flat, expansive habitat.

[plover nest with three eggs, between two pieces of driftwood in the sand]Recovery efforts, not surprisingly, have focused on the areas with the most birds. Perhaps that explains why other regions, such as Monterey Bay, have seen significant increases in plover populations while the plover population here over the past few years has remained static and even declined slightly.

Gary Page of PRBO Conservation Science (formerly the Pt. Reyes Bird Observatory) said that the plover population around Monterey Bay and in a few "pocket beaches" in northern Santa Cruz County has rebounded from a low of 146 breeding adults in 1999 to 350 in 2003. Last year was also a good year, make that great, for chicks, Page said. No fewer than 364 fledglings were produced in the Monterey/Santa Cruz area -- about 100 more than in 2002.

Page said the success had to do with good luck and intensive management. He said exclosures around nests have prevented ravens and other predators from taking away eggs, and that trappers with the U. S. Department of Agriculture have helped curb predation by the red fox -- an introduced species that the plover did not evolve with. But he said the biggest reason for the success is the reduction of the human impact on the bird through "symbolic fencing," roped off areas meant to demarcate a space reserved exclusively for plovers.

"We've roped off some of the better plover breeding sites so that there's not so much disturbance from people," Page said.

Symbolic fencing was installed for the first time at Clam Beach this spring. It was also used last year on the South Spit, where the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is also seeking to restore the once sandy habitat that prevailed out there by bulldozing the pesky European beach grass out from a 20-acre area. (By capturing sand and building dunes, the beach grass reduces the amount of flat, sandy beach preferred by the plover.)

[Beach with area roped off, sign hanging from rope, stating "Temporary Closure - Snowy Plover habitat]

"Symbolic fencing" at Clam Beach. Photo by Bob Doran.

Interestingly, neither exclosures nor symbolic fencing has been used on the Eel River gravel bars, which see more nesting activity than anywhere else in the county. Last year, for example, 32 adult plovers bred on the gravel bars, compared to 20 at Clam Beach and a total of four on the South Spit and the Eel River Wildlife Area out at Table Bluff. LeValley said that because plover eggs are approximately the size of the rocks on the gravel bar, they appear to have eluded detection by predators. He also said that the relatively light use by people of the gravel bars has obviated the need for symbolic fencing. Things may be be changing along the lower Eel, however. LeValley said this nesting season has not been a good one compared to previous years. "Maybe predators are figuring it out," he speculated.

[plover on sand]How long plovers have nested along the lower Eel is uncertain. The first person to spot a nesting plover along the river was well-known local birder Gary Lester, who spied a male snowy plover with chicks on a gravel bar in June 1996. Lester, who was out doing survey work for the county, ended up co-authoring a 1997 paper that announced the presence of plovers along a river to the birding world. His associates were Don Tuttle, at the time the county's point man on environmental matters, and Richard Stein, who worked under Tuttle.

While the discovery didn't make much of a splash locally, it was big news in the birding world. Lester has had his share of surprising sightings -- like when he spotted a white-collared swift in 1982, the first time the bird had been seen in California; or the next year, when he spied a yellow-throated vireo near Trinidad, unknown until then in Humboldt County. But he said those were esoteric achievements, important to birders but not really to anyone else. Discovering that plovers nest along the Eel has had the biggest real world impact, he said.

The human cost

[plover opening its wings]Which brings up an unfortunate reality -- finding plovers can cost people money. Just ask Paul Kraus of Eureka Ready Mix, who estimated that the ban on mining gravel along the Eel for several weeks in late spring and early summer, combined with having to pay for bird surveys, costs him between $5,000 to $10,000 every year. Or ask Mike Zamboni, 36, of McKinleyville, who was unable to fish for smelt on Gold Bluffs beach in late May and early June; the vehicle closure, he said, probably prevented him from making $8,000 to $10,000.

And then there's the perspective of someone like Mayo, who sees measures such as the symbolic fencing out at Clam Beach as a visible manifestation of regulatory overkill. "I hope I never see the day when people are confined to boardwalks and can only look out at the dunes but not go in them," he said as he rode a horse at Clam Beach recently.

LeValley thinks that's a ridiculous overreaction. To him, it's simply a matter of sharing the beach with a beleaguered creature. "They have a right to be out on the beach just as much as we do," he said.


[Person banding a plover]

ABOVE: Researchers track the movement of plovers by banding them.
Plovers typically live three to 12 years.
BELOW: The North Coast was never a plover hot spot, but the birds were historically more widespread than they are today.
Courtesy of Ron LeValley

[Two maps: one showing California Snowy Plover Historical Nest Sites, which are situated strictly on the coastline, as far south as Pt. Arena and north to Point St. George. The other map shows Snowy Plover Nest Sites 1999-2002, where nests are only within area between Rocky Point and Eel River, and nesting up the mouth of the Eel.]





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