In September, the Coal Oil Point plover docents celebrated their 10th year of helping a little shorebird, the Western snowy plover, regain lost ground in its struggle against extinction.
Against all odds, the volunteers, a keystone in UC Santa Barbara’s Coal Oil Point Reserve (COPR) restoration plan, have successfully worked with scientists, managers, and the public to reduce disturbances so the threatened plovers can resume a normal life cycle. Now there is a small, permanent breeding population on Sands Beach where none existed for the better part of three decades.
Situated below Devereux Slough, Sands Beach provides the skittish, sparrow-sized plovers with plenty of insects while its dunes and ripples offer protection against the wind. For years, they had joined other migratory shorebirds to winter here, but hatched no plover eggs. This stretch of beach is also popular with Goleta sunbathers and surfers. Nearby Isla Vista provides ample supplies of both, and many bring their dogs.
As of the late 1970s, California’s urbanizing coastline had reduced the tan-and-white birds’ breeding sites from 53 to 20. By the early 1990s, researchers could find only nine nesting grounds, and none were situated within the reserve’s boundaries.
In 1997, biologist Cris Sandoval and her husband, Kevin Lafferty — also a biologist — became COPR’s resident director and associate director, respectively. They learned about the sensitive plovers and decided to discover why the birds were not breeding. More importantly, they wondered if the situation could be reversed.
“No one knew if the site had breeding potential after so many years of disturbance,” recalled Sandoval. Many well-meaning peers discouraged her, pointing out that plovers had never been known to breed again in a site they had abandoned.
However, she welcomed the challenges. As director of an urban reserve, she had university backing to try to reverse the decline by managing both people and birds. And where else would conditions be better for such a reversal, she thought. Additionally, her intuition told her it could be done, and, she noted, “The plovers are cute.”
Lafferty and Sandoval’s careful research illuminated ways to separate people and birds. Authorities approved a plan calling for a symbolic rope fence between the plovers’ nesting zone and where people could walk; dogs had to be leashed at all times; a docent corps, emphasizing education rather than rule enforcement, was trained to secure beach-goers’ cooperation and to guard against predators.
Unfortunately, many predators hunt when docents and resident directors are usually asleep. As nests and hatchling numbers began to rise in the mid-2000s so did the number of skunks and raccoons feeding on the plovers.
When Sandoval’s own antipredator efforts proved inadequate, she was authorized to hire a professional trapper to protect the plovers. After the trapper eliminated 24 striped skunks and eight raccoons during 2009’s May-September breeding season, the reserve saw 61 chicks fledge. So far, that is the highest number of young plovers to fly the nest.
In 2011, Sandoval reported, 84 nests were built over the season; 34 had hatchings, but only 9 survived to fledge. Something new was eating the chicks. The tide turned only after traps caught four great horned owls that apparently lived in the preserve’s taller trees.
The owls had learned, said Sandoval, that plovers are defenseless against quick, sharply angled strikes. Once the taloned culprits had been captured, the surviving fledglings were simply the last chicks standing.
“Nature teaches you not to focus on a season’s success or failure,” said a philosophical Sandoval. “Predators are smart, and stuff happens.” It’s the long-term results that count. Among the lessons from this past season, she added, is that planting tall trees among beach dunes bodes ill for nesting shorebirds.
The COPR staff and unpaid docents may have created a safe space for the plovers and other birds — endangered least terns now breed near the slough, too — but the animals have returned the favor in unexpected ways. Maureen McFadden, for example, became a docent after caring for her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother for several years. She said the hours she contributes each week have had a salutary effect. “It allowed me to get outside my head,” she said. “I love talking to people and sharing observations.”
It didn’t hurt that, on her second shift as a docent, she helped save the life of an elephant seal pup that had washed ashore from one of the islands. “Man, I was on a cloud for a long time afterward,” she recalled. “It was the best thing I’d ever done.”
Showing visitors the perfectly camouflaged chicks for the first time is another natural high. “I tell people, ‘Stop; be quiet; really look,’” said McFadden. Just becoming aware of the beach’s subtle changes as the seasons shift can be eye opening, some docents added.
Watching docents interact with people has helped Sandoval change her approach to a basic problem in environmental protection: how to get people aware of their behaviors’ negative consequences for the animals and habitat. “When I first arrived (at COPR), I was angry with people for destroying beautiful places like this,” Sandoval admitted. “I was not very successful persuading people [to change such behaviors]”.
The birds and the docents helped her realize that anger would not alter the thinking or behavior that threatened what still remained, much less bring back what had been lost. “I had to find a way to be at peace with people, which I did, and this changed my whole life,” Sandoval reflected.
The next time you go to Sands Beach, be prepared to truly look and listen, not only for the wild things, but also for the ways the dunes move and the beach assumes different moods. Talk to a docent if one is about. (To check into joining the docent corps, contact coordinator April Price about upcoming training sessions beginning the first Saturday in December.)
Your life may not immediately change for the better but you may feel a touch of the serenity that can come when you share a quiet moment with nature.