Two determined Southern California biologists are on a mission to save one of our cutest, and most besieged, birds. Joggers, surfers, and dogs had better watch out.
by David Seideman, Audubon Magazine
It seems remarkable that Cristina Sandoval and Stacey Vigallon had never met, never even talked on the phone, till the day I bring them together on Sandoval’s home turf in Santa Barbara, California. For the past few years the two biologists have communicated only through email chains about a cause to which both have dedicated their professional lives: staving off the extinction of the western snowy plover.
The sparrow-sized shorebird has been federally threatened on the Pacific coast since 1993, and in 2006 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejected an effort to delist it. About 2,000 breeding pairs live along the U.S. Pacific Coast, 90 percent of them in California. One of the last best hopes for the species rests on the 1,500-acre Coal Oil Point Reserve, a beach and coastal wetland owned and operated by the University of California-Santa Barbara and an Audubon-designated Important Bird Area. Audubon regards a portion of the reserve as one of the top 10 birding spots in the nation west of the Mississippi. Sandoval, a biologist at the university, oversees an award-winning program that has brightened prospects for the plover and many other shorebirds.
Her efforts center on Sands Beach. In winter the 400-yard sliver of coast hosts the nation’s largest concentration of feeding and resting snowy plovers, as many as 400. Among them are 20 breeding pairs, which produce some 50 chicks each spring in a place where there had been none for several decades until nine years ago, when Sandoval began cordoning off their habitat and educating the public. “The plover biologists said maybe you’d get a nest or two because it’s such a small, dense place,” says the Brazilian-born scientist, who left her country because she grew too depressed watching sugarcane fields replace native habitat. “We were all wrong. We now have 20 pairs each year that are staying in breeding season and are a few feet away from each other.”
Vigallon’s focus is on L.A.’s Dockweiler Beach, cheek by jowl with LAX Airport. Although today she has traveled a mere 100 miles to Sands Beach, her experience as the Los Angeles Audubon Society’s director of interpretation is a world apart from Sandoval’s experience in Santa Barbara. Dockweiler hasn’t seen a plover hatch since the 1940s; the “snowies,” as they’re affectionately called, simply can’t compete with the hordes of human visitors each summer, though Vigallon’s talents are inspiring elementary and high school students to rally to her cause.
Like most endangered creatures, the snowy plover is an “umbrella species,” serving as a surrogate for protecting other wildlife sharing the same habitat. In the presence of healthy plover populations, researchers have noted higher numbers of such shorebirds as sanderlings, western sandpipers, whimbrels, black-bellied plovers, long-billed curlews, and western gulls. To understand you need look no further than the contrast at Sands Beach between the areas that are open to and off-limits to beachgoers. On one side much of the beach has been worn about as smooth as a billiard table by the foot traffic of surfers, joggers, and strollers. The other side, beyond the rope “fence,” is untrammeled sand dunes—“the most dynamic and fragile natural formations,” according to the California Coastal Commission. Sandoval received an award in 2003 for her plover program from The Natural Areas Association. On steep ridges, the vibrant colors of native wildflowers, including red and pink sand verbena, are aflame against the sand’s tan canvas. “There are species here you can find few other places,” Sandoval says. “Most people are unaware that a beach system like this can host so many plants and wildlife. A lot of them live underground.”
Bending down, she points to intricate grooves in the sand formed by the underground movements of ciliated sand beetles. She digs one up and holds it in her hand, letting it meander across her palm. “Audubon volunteers are always asking what makes that track in the sand,” Vigallon responds. “So mysterious!” Sandoval explains these beetles have wings but are flightless; it’s believed they move on driftwood. She gently puts this one back down and it promptly disappears, burrowing back into the sand. Scurrying about is the globose dune beetle, a federal species of special concern, owing to its dependence on California’s coastal dunes.
“This is what a real beach looks like,” Sandoval says, walking toward the shoreline. “The plovers love this type of overwash with rocks and kelp wrack.” This wrack consists of heaps of kelp filled with flies, maggots, and beach hoppers—a veritable avian feast. Vigallon is brimming with envy. For much of the year Dockweiler and other beaches in Los Angeles are routinely groomed with trucks to clear them of human detritus and to make the sands as welcome as the French Riviera’s. “We have literally miles of people,” she explains with a shrug. “There’s broken glass, diapers, Buffalo wings. It’s a safety hazard. If you don’t remove that, the beaches are horribly polluted.” The problem is that the cleanup crews eliminate the sand dunes as well. And there go the nesting spots.
In the distance beyond the ropes we catch our first glimpses of the feathery wisps, which weigh just two ounces. Hopping around, they look like cotton balls on chopsticks. Run and freeze. Run and freeze. They scamper and stop to avoid detection by predators. Sanderlings, for which plovers are frequently mistaken, do the same thing. Sandoval imitates the move, doing a little jitter and sticking her rump out.
Our smiles broaden watching three two-day-old chicks—downy dandelion fluffs bouncing to and fro—whose colors match the beach sand. “They’re so cute!” Vigallon exclaims. “You can put one in your pocket!” And their white chest plumage, from which they derive their name, is, well, pure as the driven snow.
The female deserts her brood in search of another mate about six days after the chicks hatch. (Breeding season lasts about six months.) The male then assumes the role of caretaker. The “brand-new chicks,” as Sandoval calls them, stay within a few feet of their nests.
Sandoval climbs over the rope to inspect nests and asks Vigallon and me to follow in her footsteps. Like terns and killdeers, snowies nest in scrapes, or small, shallow bowls they form in the sand by using their bellies and feet. An unwitting beach stroller could almost be forgiven for mistaking the eggs inside the scrapes for pebbles. But, surprisingly, the snowies’ arch nemesis may not be the surfers, kite fliers, Frisbee players, or sunbathers. A comprehensive survey by Kevin Lafferty, a USGS biologist and Sandoval’s husband, concluded that dogs, especially when unleashed, wreak more havoc than people passing by. They kill chicks, and the plovers waste precious energy flying away, or leave their eggs, which, notes Lafferty, “may die due to exposure or predation.”
Just before we step over the rope, Sandoval points to another chick, an extra-puffy one on the verge of fledging. A wave suddenly rolls in, soaking our feet. Almost on cue, a jogger leaps over the rope to stay dry. She forces one plover into another’s territory, triggering a brawl as the combatants go breast to breast, their wings flapping. Sandoval shouts at the jogger to get back. “When the tide is high they do this all the time,” she fumes with her slight Brazilian accent. “The runner has no idea. She probably goes home and says, ‘I didn’t do anything illegal.’ We say we manage plovers. We actually manage people. I prefer to manage plovers because they do not say a bad word.”
Sandoval recalled a woman plopping down on her beach towel right next to a nest. She refused to move until Sandoval pointed it out to her and a frantic female bird feigned a broken wing by dragging it in the sand, a decoy to distract predators from nestlings. The interloper apologized and moved.
Early on she had to get a restraining order after a surly surfer threatened to burn down her house. Two days before my visit, a stranger startled her husband, the biologist, approaching him on the beach. The man turned out to be the surfer, and he extended his hand to apologize for being a “jerk” during a period in his life when he did some jail time. He announced that he had come around to Sandoval’s way of thinking.
“People fear change,” Vigallon says. “They see things in black and white. This is a public resource. This is a very positive experience.”
I suggest Sandoval add the ex-inmate to the roster of 100 volunteer docents in her program, which is co-managed with Santa Barbara Audubon and already includes a number of surfers, engineers, and a city councilman. She likes the idea. After all, each volunteer must first take training in nonviolent confrontation (even if some carry slingshots to scare off crows that get too close to eggs or chicks). “You have to be empathetic,” she says: “ ‘I am sorry to disturb you, but did you know we have plovers here?’ Sure we can use brute force, policemen, and wardens. But you gain a friend over time.”
Sandoval enjoys the distinct advantage of operating with a free hand on university property, unrestricted by the bureaucratic layers Vigallon must grapple with in Los Angeles. At the same time, however, Vigallon can work a little Hollywood magic. She and her husband, Robert Jeffers, a film and English teacher at Dorsey, an inner-city high school, collaborated with three students on an inspirational three-minute video (viewable on YouTube at youtube.com/losangelesaudubon) promoting awareness and protection of plovers. The students had learned about the issues through their work filming people removing invasive species from beaches and joining bird counts. At a student film festival, Fox studio executives awarded their video a top prize.
A self-described “nature nerd,” Vigallon has also used her graduate degree in wildlife science, a certificate in scientific illustration, and a grant from the TogetherGreen Pennies for the Planet campaign to engage two inner-city Los Angeles elementary schools, Leo Politi and Weemes, in the creation of signs publicizing the snowies’ plight and asking beachgoers to keep out of fenced areas. Before taking field trips to observe and collect data, almost none of the children knew the birds even existed.
Vigallon has the energy of a whirling dervish. She has launched a volunteer program of her own, part of which is modeled after Sandoval’s, through a joint effort between Los Angeles Audubon, Palos Verdes/South Bay Audubon, and Santa Monica Audubon. “We want to be making people feel included,” says Vigallon, “instead of making them feel wrong.” Since the summer craziness subsided, she has begun a series of two-hour “plover-centric” walks for various school groups at Dockweiler Beach, exploring watershed ecology. “In the fall, winter, and spring, L.A. County beaches are a great place to view wildlife and find some solitude,” she says. “I hope that L.A. Audubon’s program at Dockweiler can introduce the public to viewing their beaches in a new way. Providing opportunities for people to connect with nature in the place where they live, especially in a city like Los Angeles, is extremely important in getting people to understand and support conservation. Yes, nature is in faraway places like Alaska and the Amazon, but it’s also right here in Los Angeles! We just have to take the time to look and teach others how to look.”
Back in Santa Barbara, Sandoval takes a brief pause from plover watching to ponder the harsh realities intruding on her paradise. Looming just a mile offshore is a massive oil rig, a constant reminder of the 1969 blowout in Santa Barbara that helped usher in an era of environmental reform. Off these same shores, Goleta, the world’s second-biggest natural oil seep, gives Coal Oil Point its name and coats many plovers, grebes, cormorants, and loons with tar—keeping a wildlife care network busy. So far fierce local resistance has kept the oil industry’s expansion efforts at bay. Then there’s the matter of global warming, a threat to all shorebirds as rising sea levels flood their territory.
Nevertheless she derives immense pride from the way that nature, if given half a chance, can restore itself. “I look at the big picture,” she says. “We’ve gone from no nesting to regular nesting in nine years. The dunes have grown back. The plovers have responded so well that I think this is a model.”
Both she and Vigallon harbor high hopes about the tide shifting from recreation to wildlife enjoyment as the ranks of birders to their sites swell. “Where else can you see beach-nesting birds in their nests?” Sandoval asks. “Whenever you show the snowy plovers you get the same reaction: ‘They’re easy to watch. How cute!’ ”
“They do not fly away like condors,” adds Vigallon, who would be the first to tell you that the snowies’ star power is saving the day, at least for now. As humans encroach ever further into shorebird habitat across the world, conflicts will only intensify. Central casting could not have come up with a more adorable creature on which to base a peaceful coexistence than the snowy plover.
Scientific name: Charadrius alexandrinus
Looks: A sparrow-sized waif, as pale as dry sand, with darker marks on face and neck.
Range and habitat: Sandy beaches of the Pacific Coast, from Washington to Baja. Other populations in interior of western U.S. and Mexico, Gulf Coast and Caribbean, and western South America, with closely related forms widespread in the Old World.
Behavior: Forages on open flats, alone or in small flocks. Nest is a simple scrape on the ground, lined with bits of debris.
Status: Pacific Coast population is probably fewer than 4,000, representing a decline from earlier decades.
Threats: Its limited nesting habitat is being degraded by increasing beach use by humans (with their vehicles, pets, and intensive beach-cleaning methods). Invasive plants and increasing predator populations also have an impact, and oil spills and other pollutants pose a potential threat.
Outlook: In the near term, its survival depends on the protection of essential nesting habitats.