On the first day of May, Jessica Nielsen peered silently through her binoculars as two western snowy plover chicks broke through their tiny egg shells just below the dunes of a sandy beach in southern California. It’s a sight Jessica has seen before as a Conservation Specialist for Coal Oil Point Reserve on the University of California campus in Santa Barbara, but it’s always a special moment.
The two salt and pepper-colored chicks emerged from their shells and found comfort beside their mother. After just a few minutes, the trio scurried away to search for invertebrates along the wrack line left by high tide.
After mom and her two-chick brood fell out of eyesight, Nielsen’s eyes returned to the abandoned nest, a mere scrape in the sand with twigs and pieces of eelgrass, barely discernable to the naked eye. A third egg remained.
As the minutes turned to hours without the return of either plover parent to the nest, Nielsen realized the third egg had been abandoned.
Reserve staff and volunteer docents monitor western snowy plovers at the reserve closely during the breeding season from March through September. The Pacific coast western snowy plover population is federally threatened and protected from harm by law under the Endangered Species Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act. However, many beach activities, from kite-flying to dog-walking, can disturb the tiny birds especially during the nesting season, causing adults to abandon their nests and leave their eggs or chicks vulnerable to foxes, crows, ravens and other predators. While symbolic fencing and off-leash dog restrictions can reduce avoidable disturbance to the nesting birds, abandonment still occurs.
Bill Standley is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura and has coordinated plover recovery efforts with land managers across the southern California coast for the past three years. “Their ability to recover and maintain self-sustaining populations depends, in large part, on the protection of important habitats along the Pacific coast where they feed and reproduce,” Standley explained. Partnerships between the Service and land managers like University of California help support management of important plover habitat to ensure the threatened shorebirds have a fighting chance at survival during this important time of year.
Coal Oil Point Reserve staff like Nielsen step in to care for abandoned chicks or injured birds but lack the capacity to provide the full-time care and resources that are sometimes necessary. The closest fully-equipped western snowy plover rehabilitation facility is at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a 240 mile drive from the reserve. That was, until this year.
Thanks to a new partnership with the Santa Barbara Zoo, abandoned or injured chicks have a new home-away-from-home to get back on their feet before they are released back to the wild to join their plover peers. This year, the Santa Barbara Zoo received authorization under a migratory bird rehabilitation permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to acquire and rear injured or abandoned western snowy plovers, before releasing them back into the wild.
“The permitting process ensures proper qualifications and facilities are in place to rehabilitate the species, and also ensure proper handling of the birds to reduce their habituation to human contact,” Standley said.
Knowing survival chances were slim to none if left parentless, Nielsen collected the abandoned egg. It hatched in an incubator later that day.
“We got the call from Jessica, and we were ready,” said Rachel Ritchason, curator for the Santa Barbara Zoo’s avian program. After caring for the newly hatched chick for five days, Coal Oil Point Reserve staff handed off the chick to Ritchason and her avian rehabilitation team at the Zoo.
“We follow a strict protocol which calls for the chick to remain indoors with a heat lamp until it reaches a certain weight when we can transfer it to an outdoor flight pen. We try to approximate what it would be like in the wild,” Ritchason explained.
“As its flight feathers come in, it would start to leave its parent’s side. Until that time, mom serves as both a source of heat and protection, so we try to replicate those conditions by using a feather duster and heat lamp while remaining as hands-off as possible,” she said.
Two weeks later, the phone rang again with Nielsen on the other line. A second egg was recovered at an abandoned nest at Coal Oil Point Reserve.
“This nest had been discovered by a skunk, a common plover nest predator,” Nielsen said. “Two of the three eggs were easy prey, but the third was knocked away from the nest during the commotion. The skunk didn’t see it.”
This egg hatched the next day and Ritchason and her team at the Zoo took the second chick under their care at one-day old. “We wanted to get the two chicks together as soon as possible. They are a flocking species, they live in groups, so it’s always better for them to be in the company of each other for their development,” she explained.
Once the younger chick had reached a certain age and weight, rehabilitators moved the younger chick into a small enclosure within the older chick’s flight pen.
After several weeks of close monitoring under the care of Zoo’s avian rehabilitation staff, the two chicks had grown to near full size – just six inches in length and one ounce in weight. They were active, alert, exercising their flight abilities, and determined by Ritchason’s team to be ready for release. Because rearing protocols prevent prolonged or frequent human interaction, the chicks were still wary of their human caretakers.
“They don’t want to be near us, and that’s exactly what we want,” Ritchason said. “They have a healthy respect for potential predators. For that reason, I’m very optimistic about their survival.”
Once the second chick was ready to be released, Ritchason, Nielsen, Standley, and a hand full of excited onlookers came together to witness the 55 day-old and 39 day-old birds’ release back to the beaches of the Coal Oil Point Reserve.
“I’m really hopeful that they will join in the flock, find other juveniles, and thrive in the wild,” Ritchason said. “This is what it’s all about. It’s a very special day for us.”
As the door to the small travel enclosure opened, one chick scurried out immediately and spread its wings for a short flight around the dunes. Several seconds later, the second chick walked slowly out of the enclosure, taking time to survey the scene.
Nielsen watched the young birds for several minutes through her binoculars as they explored their new territory. “Ideally when I come back to check later, I’ll see them in the area of the slough mouth where the other plovers tend to hang out,” she said.
Since the birds were released back to the wild, Nielsen and other docents have spotted the two birds in the area feeding with the rest of the plovers along the nearby sandy beaches.
Small colored bands were attached to the plover’s legs so they can be identified over time.
They will continue to be monitored year round. Partnerships between the Service and conservation partners like Coal Oil Point Reserve help support management of important plover habitat to ensure the threatened shorebirds have a fighting chance at survival during this important time of year. With the support of Santa Barbara Zoo’s avian rehabilitation team, the partnership is that much stronger in giving these tiny shorebirds a fighting chance against extinction.
Today, the Pacific coast western snowy plover population is estimated at around 2,900 breeding birds compared to 1,780 in the early 1990s. Standley said that although there have been some short term population declines attributed to unseasonably cold winters and site-specific predation, surveys indicate an overall upward trend. “The teamwork across agencies and organizations to support the recovery of this rare shorebird reinforces our shared vision to protect the valuable natural resources of our beautiful coastline for future generations to admire.”