Surf’s up! Celebrating public recreation and shorebird conservation at Surf Beach in Santa Barbara County
The western snowy plover is a tiny shorebird with a grey back and dark patches on either side of the neck, behind the eyes and on the forehead.

Story courtesy of University of California, Santa Barbara and Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office public affairs

Surf Beach in Santa Barbara County is home to a diverse variety of plants and wildlife including the federally threatened western snowy plover.

In a way that truly embodies the spirit of Californians who banded together to pass the Coastal Act 44 years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Vandenberg Air Force Base, California Coastal Commission and the community of Lompoc came together this year to amend a closure policy to provide increased beach access to their closest beach, Surf Beach in Santa Barbara County.

Managed by Vandenberg Air Force Base, Surf Beach is home to tiny shorebirds that have been tirelessly fighting for survival after years of habitat loss and human activity. Western snowy plovers, often confused with the much more common sanderling, are a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and have benefited from protections from human disturbance during the critical summertime breeding season at Surf Beach.

To preserve this important nesting habitat, Vandenberg enacted a beach policy, setting aside portions of Surf Beach that would close to public recreation to allow the birds space to nest and breed. The policy stated that if 50 trespass violations were recorded during the nesting season then the beach would close to the public for the remainder of the season. Unfortunately for the residents of Lompoc, these beach closures occurred almost every summer between 2012 and 2018.

The sanderling is a common shorebird that is often confused with the western snowy plover because of their proximity and appearance. However, sanderlings lack the dark coloration around the head and shorter beak of their more uncommon doppelgänger.

This year, the community spurred a landmark decision by Vandenberg and the Service to discontinue beach closures as a result of the 50-violation limit policy.

“Vandenberg Air Force Base and the California Coastal Commission are listening to the community, recognizing Surf Beach’s history and importance to Lompoc, and improving the beach and local access to it, all while protecting the western snowy plover,” said mayor of the city of Lompoc, Jenelle Osborne.

“Participation from the City, the County, Vandenberg Air Force Base and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was very impressive,” said Larry Simon, federal consistency coordinator with the California Coastal Commission. “It showed that everyone wanted to pull together and figure out a good solution.”

Western snowy plover numbers have seen an upward trend in recent years, hovering around 2,200 birds across their Pacific coast range, an indication that conservation efforts, like habitat restoration and fencing to protect breeding habitat, is paying off. Nesting effort and success has increased base-wide since conservation efforts for the Western snowy plover began on Vandenberg in 1993.

What makes Surf Beach so special? “You go to a Los Angeles or San Diego beach that’s crowded, developed and has beach grooming, and you may only see crows and gulls,” said Jessica Nielson, conservation specialist at Coal Oil Point Reserve in Santa Barbara County. “And then you go to Surf Beach or Coal Oil Point Reserve, and you’re going to see a diversity of birds and other species that you won’t find at beaches that are less healthy.”

Birdwatching is only one of many different recreational activities that beachgoers can enjoy while sharing the beach with plovers.

Dan Robinette, senior biologist at Point Blue Conservation Science, adds that, at Surf Beach, “We have, for the most part, natural dunes.” These rare, coastal dunes shielded from large human disturbances are exactly what snowy plovers need to lay their eggs and raise their hatchlings.

This year, the community of Lompoc can celebrate access to this unique coastal beach, as well as a growing population of western snowy plovers - a testament to the sacrifices they’ve made to promote the tiny bird’s recovery.

“When members of the public are aware of the rare species with which they share their shores, it can benefit both the plovers and beach goers,” said Lena Chang, senior fish and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura. “This knowledge can help create a balance between enjoying your beaches and understanding why some protections are necessary for rare species to continue to exist in our coastal ecosystems.”

Through a multi-faceted conservation strategy, plover populations have been seeing an upward trend.

Chang, along with Vandenberg, the City of Lompoc and the California Coastal Commission work together to embrace public use of Surf Beach while sharing the shores with the plovers.

"Coexisting with snowy plovers on our public beaches creates a wonderful learning opportunity,” she said. “Citizens are great advocates for rare species and effective educators in their own communities.”

Biologists from Vandenberg will continue to monitor the plover population this breeding season. If numbers decline due to human disturbance, the policy change could be re-evaluated and closures could go back into effect in future years, which is why public education is so crucial to maintaining a balance between public recreation opportunities and conservation of these tiny shorebirds.

The Service offers the following tips for beach goers and their friends, to help protect western snowy plovers during breeding season:

  • Keep your distance from western snowy plovers to avoid disturbing them.
  • Respect posted signage and fencing that identifies closed nesting areas.
  • Take trash with you when you leave, or place trash in covered trash bins.

Authors: Chase Brewster, Hope Cupples, Robert Heim, Tara Jagadeesh, Renee Albrecht from the University of California, Santa Barbara and Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office public affairs

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Recreational Activities