Story by Virginia Werner
Photos by Eli Lapidus
Photos courtesy of Daniel Farrar
The Siltcoos Recreational Beach, a familiar destination for Oregon Coast visitors who frequent its dunes, is undergoing a significant change. Visitors are initially treated to the scent of salt air, a gentle breeze, and the sounds of waves crashing on the shore. However, the situation becomes increasingly unusual as they continue up the path over a huge sand dune. Beyond the area stands a large sign declaring “No Entry” and a rope fencing off a significant portion of the beach.
Several miles away, an ATV roars—banned from this part of the coast by additional signs. Dogs must remain on leashes as their owners walk alongside the water. A glance up at a sign with the words “Share the Shore” across the top may provide some explanation.
The western snowy plover is a small, quiet, and unobtrusive shorebird native to the Pacific Coast. Currently plovers are listed as threatened under the Oregon Endangered Species Act, and 1992, there were just 28 of these birds left on the coast. Thanks to conservation efforts, they now number around 300. To protect both the plover and the public’s recreational access to Oregon beaches, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department recently developed the Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) with the US Fish and Wildlife Service focusing specifically on snowy plovers.
The HCP website states that its primary objective is to increase population numbers by conducting ongoing management for the species and its habitat as well as “monitoring western snowy plover populations and threats to determine success of recovery actions.”
David Lauten, a biologist specializing in snowy plovers, has worked with the Oregon Biodiversity Information Center (OBIC) on monitoring the snowy plover for the past 17 years.
“Our goal is to give birds a good chance,” says Lauten, who works for the Institute for Natural Resources. The HCP helps state and federal agencies to work together and strategize a way that will help the birds best, Lauten notes, and the groups are “committed to the long term process of making this happen and protecting the birds.”
The heavy scope and tripod David Farrar carries, along with the binoculars around his neck, suggest he is not your typical beach bum. As a faculty research assistant at Portland State University who works with OBIC on monitoring the western snowy plover, Farrar spends six hours per day observing snowy plover nesting sites, visiting about two locations each day from April until mid-August.
Farrar monitors all aspects of the population including how long the plover remains in its nest, how many eggs the plover lays, and the date eggs hatch. Every plover is tagged with a special identification band around its foot to help Farrar keep track of individual progress. When the chicks are born, they’re closely monitored. After snowy plover chicks hatch, they’re raised primarily by the male. There are more males in the population than females, a characteristic common in declining bird populations.
Plovers face many threats, particularly during their March through September breeding season. “Plovers are a key part of the food chain out here on the coast,” Farrar says. “If you take them out it can have a cascading effect on other animals.” Like many species of birds, if the snowy plover parent is disturbed or touched by a foreign object like a human or other obtrusive animal, it is likely to abandon the nest permanently. Certain areas of beaches are fenced off around the plovers’ nesting grounds to keep humans at safe distances. Dogs must remain on leashes and kite flying is prohibited from the beach because plovers often mistake them for predators. These measures help prevent plovers from abandoning their nests when they feel threatened.
The plan also works to restore the snowy plovers’ natural habitat, calling for the removal of plants like European beach grass, which was introduced to the area 100 years ago to help stabilize the sand dunes.
The “Predator Management” part of the plan entails protection from the snowy plovers’ natural predators including foxes, crows, coyotes, and rodents. If necessary, the animals will be removed from the area with the use of fencing and possible extermination with environmentally safe pesticides or traps. These measures are reevaluated annually to determine their effectiveness.
Farrar went to the coast on a Monday in May to get a first-hand look at the birds, but he was disappointed to find that there were none in the immediate area. “I guess the lesson we can take from this is that more people means fewer birds,” Farrar stated. “There are usually more birds out on the weekdays, when there aren’t as many disturbances around.”
As Farrar leaves the beach, a large ATV crashes over one of the dunes, rumbling so loudly it disturbs a young girl sitting in the sand. She covers her ears with both hands to soften the noise. Like the girl, nesting snowy plovers are often disturbed by recreational vehicles that frequent the dunes. “The best thing the public can do is to make sure that when they go to the beach, they’re aware of where the plovers are nesting and to observe the regulations that apply to those beaches,” Lauten says. “[There are] places for the plovers and [there are] places for people. They just need a little bit of space so they can be successful.”