Waterspot: Return of the plover

Sign posted near Seaside Reef in Solana Beach, warning beachgoers to avoid snowy plover nesting sites. Photo by Chris Ahrens

While many people enjoy watching those sparrow-sized white birds with the dark markings pumping their tiny legs in a game of chicken with the waves, not everyone knows a lot about them.

They are called western snowy plovers, and can provide great entertainment with their abrupt Keystone Cops direction changes as they narrowly escape destruction from incoming whitewater while foraging the wet sand for invertebrates. But these sensitive ocean creatures currently face a greater threat than the mighty Pacific. They are categorized as “threatened” by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and as a “species of concern” by the state of California.

The usual suspect: destruction of habitat is multiplied when dogs (even those on leashes), Frisbees and other low-flying objects cause plover mothers to abandon their nests.  Plovers, it seems, are likely to mistake anything that hovers over the sand as one of their most common predators, hawks. Plovers nest in the soft sand, creating ground scrapes, small depressions made by kicking up sand.

They lay three to five eggs, some of which are inadvertency crushed by walkers, cyclists or motor vehicles.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the state of California are having moderate success in rescuing our feathered friends. Locally, a portion of the beach at Seaside Reef, a popular surf spot on the Cardiff/ Solana Beach border, is being used as a plover sanctuary. Sitting just above the high tide line, a roughly 25-by-100-foot sandbox is guarded by thin strands of twine, most of which is broken after rotting through. This is all that separates the hatchery (which is shared by the also threatened least tern) from the beach-going public. Printed signs warning against trespassing into the enclosure are another deterrent. Still, the presence of human footprints in the bird nursery indicates that some people don’t recognize the boundary.

While the extent of prosecution is unclear, it is posted that “violators may be cited or fined for trespassing.” Beach-goers to Seaside Reef are advised to try to avoid areas above the high tide line. This gives plovers their best chance to recuperate and continue to provide their slapstick entertainment for generations to come.

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