The Cambrian

Snowy plovers in Cambria? Are they moving in for good, or just passing through?

Say the words “Western snowy plover,” and many knowledgeable Central Coast shore lovers immediately think of itty-bitty birds and beach access restrictions to protect a species that’s designated as being threatened with extinction.

So, when a July 20 social-media post alerted to a sighting of two plovers near the mouth of Santa Rosa Creek in Cambria, there were a lot of smiley-faced emojis in response. But questions also arose elsewhere about what might happen in the future at the popular recreational site just north of the county’s Shamel Park beach.

Apparently, not much yet, according to State Parks environmental scientist Regena Orr, except for continued monitoring and efforts to keep human feet and dogs away from the birds that are so small one could fit in the palm of someone’s hand. Plover chicks are about the size of a quarter.

The key to what’s next, Orr said in a phone interview, is what the birds do at Santa Rosa Creek Beach.

Visiting the area for years

Orr said the plovers have been visiting the area for years. “Last year, we had about 20 or 30 plovers,” she said.

But so far, the birds haven’t established nests there. And nests would be the key to those next steps.

For now, the birds “are feeding, roosting and resting there,” Orr said. The best things people can do are being careful where they’re walking — plovers’ size and camouflage coloring make the tiny creatures hard to see — giving the birds plenty of space and absolutely keeping dogs out of that area, she said.

Also problematic in nesting areas are kites or anything airborne (like drones, which are illegal over the park anyway) because they can look and move like predator birds.

Dogs are allowed on the shore at the county park next to the state park area, which can make it difficult for visitors to know where one property ends and the other begins. “There are signs there,” Orr said, but sometimes they disappear.

It’s best to give the birds time and space “to sit there and rest” as much as possible, she said. “They’re building up fat reserves” for winter, the stormy season and the next breeding season.

And if that breeding happens at the Santa Rosa Creek area? “We’ll put up fencing,” she said.

Signs to protect the birds during their nesting season, as State Parks does at other sites and federal officials do at Vandenberg Air Force Base, would also be erected, she said.

When nesting occurs, Orr said, the birds mark potential sites with “scrapes,” tiny depressions scratched in the sand near the beach vegetation line. If the female finds a scrape she likes, she’ll lay her eggs there.

The birds are easily driven off of their nests by people or pets walking by, kites and other airborne items or, where allowed, vehicles driven on the beach — as is the case in some areas of the Oceano Dunes.

A variety of wild animals and pets kill the birds and eat their eggs. Additionally, within hours of being born, the tiny hatchlings must scurry to the edge of the surf to feed.

The Santa Rosa Creek bird

Previously, Orr told Elizabeth Bettenhausen (who posted the photos) that the bird she photographed was a female plover that had been “banded” for identification at Fort Ord State Park in 2015. Since then, that bird had tended to stay at Villa Creek Beach within Estero Bluffs State Park, Orr said, adding that this year, the female plover had three nests at Villa Creek, two of which hatched chicks.

Bettenhausen said she hasn’t seen the plover there since, and that Orr had told her the bird had returned to Villa Creek.

“But as nesting season ends,” the regular beachgoer said, “dozens of snowy plover will be showing up here again, if the past two winters are any clue.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife data from 2005-17 shows a gradual increase in West Coast populations after a low point in 2007.

“Western snowy plover is doing much better throughout its range from Washington state to Baja California thanks to the hard work of land managers, wildlife biologists, conservation organizations, wildlife agencies, volunteers, and the public,” Ronnie Glick, a senior environmental scientist at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, told The Tribune last year.

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