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There's Room for Shorebirds, Too

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snowy plover chick
Snowy Plover: Can sunbathers, pets, and surfers share the beach with this newly hatched snowy plover chick? Photograph courtesy of Todd Huspeni (University of California, Santa Barbara).
Think of southern California, and images of beach, sun, and surf come to mind, coupled with boundless recreation opportunities for beachgoers. What's missing from these images? Shorebirds. Disturbance by people and their pets is causing shorebirds like the threatened western snowy plover to seek more remote locations. Can protection of small areas of special habitat provide important sanctuaries for these birds, with relatively little impact to the beachgoing public?

To investigate this question, Kevin Lafferty, a marine ecologist with the USGS Western Ecological Research Center in Santa Barbara, CA, conducted a preliminary beach trial last summer at Coal Oil Point Reserve, a public beach in Santa Barbara.

Kevin observed that human activity at the reserve often displaced shorebirds that were approached within 20 yards; 10 percent of humans and 40 percent of dogs disturbed shorebirds, most of which flew when disturbed. Unlike most other birds, threatened western snowy plovers hid from people up on the dry sand instead of moving. Still, each snowy plover was disturbed about 115 times per week, 16 times more than at remote or protected areas. Despite disturbance, the snowy plovers stayed faithful to their preferred habitat around a lagoon mouth, although they were less abundant near beach-access points.

Kevin noted the types of disturbance snowy plovers were most sensitive to, measured the distance at which they reacted to disturbance, and determined the preferred habitat of plovers within a 3-km stretch of beach designated as critical habitat for the population. He then developed a mathematical model that predicted the optimal amount of habitat to set aside to maximize protection of plovers with minimal inconvenience to beach users.

overlooking the beach at Coal Oil Point Reserve, and the trial rope-fenced area reserved for shorebirds
Trial boundary: A rope fence (highlighted by dashed red line) marks an area reserved for shorebirds to rest undisturbed by people and their pets, in a preliminary trial last summer at Coal Oil Point Reserve. Photograph by Kevin Lafferty.
A preliminary trial began last summer to help buffer a snowy plover chick and its father from disturbance. A rope fence denoted the boundaries of the sensitive area. People could walk along the water's edge for a 300-yard stretch, but were asked not to enter the adjoining dry sand around the lagoon. Volunteers staffed the area to encourage people to respect the closed area and to comply with the local dog-leash ordinance.

The result? Disturbance to snowy plovers and other birds decreased dramatically, helping the plover chick successfully fledge. Snowy plover densities increased inside the fenced area. In addition, the number of least terns, an endangered species, increased sixfold. In total, the abundance of birds in the protected area increased nearly fourfold. Counts of birds outside the fence remained largely unchanged, suggesting that additional birds were entering the protected area.

The fence, which is still in place, allows birds to sit in one spot without being forced away within a few minutes. In addition, other birds flying along the coast may notice a lot of birds sitting on the beach, realize the area must be a safe place to rest for a spell, and fly in.

Most beach users walk along the wet sand near the water's edge and are not affected by the fence, which encloses only dry sand. During the preliminary trial, fewer than 5 percent of the people using the beach had to choose a different patch of dry sand to sit on. Interviews with beachgoers revealed that many people valued the increased opportunity to view wildlife, and even more said they were glad that the minor inconvenience was an alternative to beach closures used elsewhere to protect endangered birds.

Related Web Sites
Western Ecological Research Center
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
Coal Oil Point
University of California—Natural Reserve System

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Santa Barbara Shorebirds

Northwest Australia

Research California Sea Otter

Outreach Stellwagen Bank NMS Web Site

Science Mentoring

Woods Hole Food Drive

Meetings CMGP Planning

Curt Mobley

Gulf of Mexico Integrated Database Workshop

Cooperative Agreements

Awards Citation Classic

Staff & Center News Mike Carr & Homa Lee

Netherlands Visiting Scientist

New Woods Hole Lab Van


Woods Hole Visitor

New Woods Hole Staff

Postdoc Presents Seminar

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