Joining Forces to Save the Snowy Plover
Two determined Southern California biologists are on a mission to save one of our cutest, and most besieged, birds. Joggers, surfers, and dogs had better watch out.
Our smiles broaden watching three two-day-old chicks--downy dandelion fluffs bouncing to and fro--whose colors match the beach sand. "They're so cute!" Vigallon exclaims. "You can put one in your pocket!" And their white chest plumage, from which they derive their name, is, well, pure as the driven snow.
The female deserts her brood in search of another mate about six days after the chicks hatch. (Breeding season lasts about six months.) The male then assumes the role of caretaker. The "brand-new chicks," as Sandoval calls them, stay within a few feet of their nests.
Sandoval climbs over the rope to inspect nests and asks Vigallon and me to follow in her footsteps. Like terns and killdeers, snowies nest in scrapes, or small, shallow bowls they form in the sand by using their bellies and feet. An unwitting beach stroller could almost be forgiven for mistaking the eggs inside the scrapes for pebbles. But, surprisingly, the snowies' arch nemesis may not be the surfers, kite fliers, Frisbee players, or sunbathers. A comprehensive survey by Kevin Lafferty, a USGS biologist and Sandoval's husband, concluded that dogs, especially when unleashed, wreak more havoc than people passing by. They kill chicks, and the plovers waste precious energy flying away, or leave their eggs, which, notes Lafferty, "may die due to exposure or predation."
Just before we step over the rope, Sandoval points to another chick, an extra-puffy one on the verge of fledging. A wave suddenly rolls in, soaking our feet. Almost on cue, a jogger leaps over the rope to stay dry. She forces one plover into another's territory, triggering a brawl as the combatants go breast to breast, their wings flapping. Sandoval shouts at the jogger to get back. "When the tide is high they do this all the time," she fumes with her slight Brazilian accent. "The runner has no idea. She probably goes home and says, 'I didn't do anything illegal.' We say we manage plovers. We actually manage people. I prefer to manage plovers because they do not say a bad word."
Sandoval recalled a woman plopping down on her beach towel right next to a nest. She refused to move until Sandoval pointed it out to her and a frantic female bird feigned a broken wing by dragging it in the sand, a decoy to distract predators from nestlings. The interloper apologized and moved.
Early on she had to get a restraining order after a surly surfer threatened to burn down her house. Two days before my visit, a stranger startled her husband, the biologist, approaching him on the beach. The man turned out to be the surfer, and he extended his hand to apologize for being a "jerk" during a period in his life when he did some jail time. He announced that he had come around to Sandoval's way of thinking.
"People fear change," Vigallon says. "They see things in black and white. This is a public resource. This is a very positive experience."
I suggest Sandoval add the ex-inmate to the roster of 100 volunteer docents in her program, which is co-managed with Santa Barbara Audubon and already includes a number of surfers, engineers, and a city councilman. She likes the idea. After all, each volunteer must first take training in nonviolent confrontation (even if some carry slingshots to scare off crows that get too close to eggs or chicks). "You have to be empathetic," she says: " 'I am sorry to disturb you, but did you know we have plovers here?' Sure we can use brute force, policemen, and wardens. But you gain a friend over time."
Sandoval enjoys the distinct advantage of operating with a free hand on university property, unrestricted by the bureaucratic layers Vigallon must grapple with in Los Angeles. At the same time, however, Vigallon can work a little Hollywood magic. She and her husband, Robert Jeffers, a film and English teacher at Dorsey, an inner-city high school, collaborated with three students on an inspirational three-minute video (viewable on YouTube at youtube.com/losangelesaudubon) promoting awareness and protection of plovers. The students had learned about the issues through their work filming people removing invasive species from beaches and joining bird counts. At a student film festival, Fox studio executives awarded their video a top prize.
A self-described "nature nerd," Vigallon has also used her graduate degree in wildlife science, a certificate in scientific illustration, and a grant from the TogetherGreen Pennies for the Planet campaign to engage two inner-city Los Angeles elementary schools, Leo Politi and Weemes, in the creation of signs publicizing the snowies' plight and asking beachgoers to keep out of fenced areas. Before taking field trips to observe and collect data, almost none of the children knew the birds even existed.