Golden Gate Wildlife Spotlight: Western Snowy Plover

 Species spotlight: Western Snowy Plover (Charadrius nivosus nivosus)

Western Snowy Plovers (Charadrius nivosus nivosus) are a shorebird found along coastline, bays, estuaries, and rivers on the Pacific coast.  They forage on aquatic invertebrates.  Due to habitat loss, their population has been decreasing and in 1993, they were listed as a federally threatened species. Western Snowy Plovers are sensitive to disturbance,  which is a problem as their nesting and overwintering habitat are beaches that are commonly used for recreational purposes.  Any disturbance from unleashed dogs to kites overhead can cause the plovers to abandon their eggs and young in the spring.

Photo: Western Snowy Plover on Crissy Field beach.

It has been a little over two months since I began my internship at Golden Gate National Recreation Area. As a wildlife intern, I get to monitor many different species in a range of  habitats.  Every day in the field or the office brings stunning scenery and views–Rodeo Beach, the San Francisco cityline from Alcatraz Island, and towering redwoods at Muir Woods. I have already learned so much, from field techniques for intertidal sampling to 3D mapping software. I am excited for what is to come in the new year. 

One of my duties as an intern is conducting Western Snowy Plover surveys at Ocean Beach and Crissy Field with Park biologists, Rachel and Katie.  The plovers overwinter at these two beaches, resting and gaining energy to become full time parents in the spring.  On my first day in the field back in November, I went out to Ocean Beach with Rachel to conduct our biweekly plover surveys.  To spot a plover, look for little, white cotton balls darting around in the sand or along the tide.  Oftentimes though, they are sitting in a footprint and their brown plumage blends easily into their surroundings.  What started off as clear skies turned into dark clouds and soon, large raindrops were dotting our data sheets. Luckily, Ocean Beach is right next to the sunset neighborhood of San Francisco, so we took cover in a nearby bakery and munched on pumpkin bread while waiting for the storm to pass.  The storm passed in 30 minutes and when we returned, it was just us and the birds on the beach!  In these surveys, we count the total number of Snowy Plovers and any other birds on the beach.  We also count the number of humans, vehicles, aircraft, and dogs (both on leash and off leash) to gather data on disturbances.   In this survey, we counted 78 plovers across the two beaches, a high count for the year. 

Ocean Beach during a Western Snowy Plover survey.

Working alongside Western Snowy Plovers is truly a full circle moment for me.  My first experience in the conservation field and with birds was as a docent for the Western Snowy Plover conservation program at Coal Oil Point Reserve, run by UC Santa Barbara and the UC Natural Reserve System.  A friend of mine suggested the program to me and I thought 5 hours a week on the beach sounded like a great way to pass some time and enjoy the beach. The conservation program at Coal Oil Point Reserve was established in 2001 to protect the Western Snowy Plover and their habitat–a stretch of sandy beach, sand dunes, and adjacent estuary mouth.  Prior to the program, Snowy Plovers rarely nested on the beach.  After the installation of symbolic fencing, signage, and the implementation of a volunteer docent program, the breeding population of Snowy Plovers bounced back.  Now, the Reserve averages 30 fledged chicks per year! As a docent, I roamed the beach, enforcing rules and providing education on the conservation program to beach visitors. I also spent a lot of time observing the Snowy Plovers and learning about their behavior.  Getting to see adults sitting on nests and chicks darting around on the beach, a direct impact of the conservation program, felt very rewarding.  During those many hours on the beach, never once did I think that this was something I could be doing as a career.  

 In Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Western Snowy Plovers can be found darting around on Ocean Beach and Crissy Field.  Both beaches are located in San Francisco and are visited by millions of residents and visitors year-round.  Working with the wildlife team, I plan to use my docenting skills to strengthen the outreach and education for Snowy Plover conservation.  I also look forward to helping  implement other management strategies, such as installing more symbolic fencing and signage to decrease disturbances to the Snowy Plovers. 

As 2023 begins, I am feeling proud about how far I’ve come since being a docent on my path to becoming a wildlife biologist.  I am so excited to continue learning about the federally listed species of the San Francisco Bay Area.  I feel so lucky to be working in the public lands that I grew up learning about and visiting. 

I am currently helping out with California red-legged frog surveys, so stay tuned for my next blog post! 


Featured image taken by Stephanie Ibarra

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