Saving the season

By Shelly Leachman, UC Santa Barbara

Conservation requires certain heroics: research to identify and develop solutions, and the resources to put them into place. And sometimes it’s a matter of being quick on one’s feet — quite literally.

Case in point: Cristina Sandoval, longtime director of UC Santa Barbara’s Coal Oil Point Reserve.

In her valiant efforts to recover the western snowy plover, a diminutive, federally threatened shorebird that nests each year on the reserve, Sandoval has employed every strategy there is — and created clever new ones. This very summer, she raced more than a dozen plover eggs to safety, in the dark of night, while cradling them in her own two hands.

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Adult western snowy plover resting at Coal Oil Point Reserve. Image credit: Lobsang Wangdu

King tide calamity

Waves at the reserve were massive in July, unusual for the time of year. When huge breakers crashed on the beach during high tide late one evening, the water rushed into the plover nests. As Sandoval saw it unfolding before her eyes from her home on the reserve, she dropped her dinner plate and ran.

“In 23 years here, that was the first time ever that I’ve seen that in July — the ocean flooded the nesting area and water was gushing over the nests,” Sandoval said. “I rushed to the beach and started grabbing eggs and putting them in my shirt. A few were gone to the ocean but we got about 14. I carried them home in my hands, rinsed them, kept them in an incubator overnight and the next day they were taken to the zoo.”

Hatching’s happening at the zoo

That’s the Santa Barbara Zoo, where those same 14 eggs, in recent days, have all hatched. Behind the scenes there, adorable plover chicks scurry to and fro in a protected flight pen. They will remain there until they are strong and big enough for release back to the beach.

The zoo for years has operated a robust and successful plover conservation program, with Sandoval and Coal Oil Point Reserve playing a key role.

plover nesting
Recently hatched, a western snowy plover chick basks in the warmth of an incubator. Image credit: Lobsang Wangdu

“All of our plovers this year have come from Coal Oil Point, they were all fertile and they all hatched,” said Rachel Ritchason, director of collections for the Santa Barbara Zoo. Ritchason was providing a tour of the zoo’s plover facility for Sandoval, her staff and volunteer docents. “Coal Oil Point also is an extremely good release location because it’s well-monitored, it has much less foot traffic than some other beaches and it’s close to the zoo. And they are such great partners.”

Protecting the plovers and their nests during breeding season at Coal Oil Point is a constant and evolving challenge, for birds and biologists alike. Sandoval and her colleagues must often change strategies as quickly as plovers scamper across the sand.

Skunk strategies

One year, when skunks were eating nests, Sandoval took to catching the predators by hand. It was risky (and stinky) business, and not sustainable. So she deployed another new technique: Wooden eggs, painted to match plover eggs, were placed in the nests. “Plover parents are not very discriminant about the egg shape,” Sandoval said. The real ones went into an incubator. When about ready to hatch, biologists returned the eggs to their parents, who were none the wiser.

“This method also was not sustainable because I had to wake up at night to check if the eggs were pipping,” Sandoval said. “One night in 2008, the power went off because of the Gap Fire and we had two incubators full of plover eggs. I didn’t have a generator so I moved all the eggs to my kitchen oven and added candles to keep it warm, moving candles in and out all night to keep the temperature at 99.8 °F. All the eggs hatched but that was too stressful, so I stopped using the egg swap method.”

Saving the season 1
Cristina Sandoval, director of the NRS’s Coal Oil Point Reserve. Image credit: Lobsang Wangdu

A promising season

The current breeding season began with the potential to be the best ever, with a record 68 adult plovers at the start, according to Sandoval. Nesting started early, she said, and “at one point there were so many nests that it was hard to track them.”

That didn’t last long.

This year’s beach flooding was a rarity, but crafty predators are expected. Yet this season has been tougher than most. Crows gobbled up 32 nests, about 100 eggs altogether, almost as soon as humans discovered them. And the usual methods of deterrence — chasing crows away, scaring them by waving and pretending to eat a fake crow as a predator — weren’t working. So the conservationists at COPR had to get crafty themselves.

The need to intervene

“We realized we would have no nesting success at all this year unless we protected the nests,” Sandoval said. “Other plover sites have successfully used a metal cage called a predator exclosure that surrounds each nest. It has a small mesh side where the plover parents can come in and out, but is too small for a crow to get in. It can attract owls and hawks, which catch the plover parent when it is trying to leave the exclosure, so we modified the traditional exclosure to also prevent an owl from eating the adults.” 

Using mesh and zip ties, and plywood for the roofs to block the view of owls, Sandoval’s team built exclosures for the surviving nests at Coal Oil Point and at the nearby North Campus Open Space. They gave them each two walls — a single wall is traditional — to give the birds more time and options for escape, should a predator land outside.

“Any intervention to a plover’s natural life requires permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but they quickly reviewed the modifications and approved them,” Sandoval said. “Before the exclosures we lost about 100 eggs from crows.  After the exclosures were placed we didn’t lose a single egg from crows, and many chicks have hatched since we started using the modified exclosures.”

Predator training

Skunks are still an issue, as baby skunks can get through the mesh, and owls eat the hatched chicks once they leave the exclosure and begin to explore. Deploying fake eggs wrapped in electrified wire — a booby trap of sorts — could eventually teach skunks, via a small shock, to avoid plover eggs. But protecting chicks from owl predation once they’re out and about?

“This is a bigger challenge to solve,” Sandoval said. “These challenges sometimes seem endless but the efforts are paying off. At one point in the 90’s there were just over 500 Western snowy plovers left on the Pacific Coast. There are over 4000 plovers now.  The increase is mostly a result of managing beach recreation in a way that is compatible with plovers nesting in peace. Our local community adopted the new way to use Sands Beach and the number of plover nests went from zero in 2000 to about 60 per year now.

“It’s really amazing to see something so vulnerable be so resilient,” she continued. “Despite all these things they have survived for thousands and thousands of years — it’s just incredible. Ours was the first historically abandoned nesting site that was brought back. So we’ve learned it can be done, and they are making a comeback. There’s a lot of hope.”

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