June 17, 2004
THE NEWS | PUBLISHER | THE HUM | PREVIEW | CALENDAR
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.
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.
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
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.
Juvenile male plovers
gamboling on the beach. Photo by Ron LeValley
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.
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.
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
Clam Beach is not the only place
where there are ongoing and potential plover conflicts. Other
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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."
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.
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
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,"
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
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.
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.
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
THE NEWS | PUBLISHER | THE HUM | PREVIEW | CALENDAR
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal,