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Protection Enforcement for Threatened Species Remains Crucial for Survival

By Lillian Boyd, Dana Point Times

Editor’s Note: The original photographs used for this story incorrectly captured Sanderlings. The incorrect images have since been removed and replaced with photos of Western Snowy Plovers. 

A brisk morning stroll along the California coast with your canine companion: What sounds like a heavenly beach excursion to some folks translates into chaos and distress for the coastal population of the Western Snowy Plovers.

As temporary signage in Salt Creek and Crystal Cove reiterates, dogs are prohibited on the beach, and in authorized areas, dogs must be leashed, according to Orange County Code 2-5-39 (a), (d) 2-5-38. The balance of Western Snowy Plover population not only benefits from such protections, it depends on them. They have been classified as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act since 1993, which means they are vulnerable to endangerment in the near future.

“Snowy plovers are not like most birds. If a dog runs through a roost of gulls, they’ll fly off and carry about their habits. But plovers will expend a lot of their precious energy to scurry off and fly away,” said Scott Thomas, Vice Chair of the Conservation Committee at Sea and Sage Audobon Society. “An incident like that disturbs their entire day.”

Sea and Sage is the local Audobon Society chapter for Orange County. The organization states that its mission is to protect birds, other wildlife, and their habitats through education, citizen science, research, and public policy advocacy. Thomas describes plovers to be a specialist species as opposed to generalist species, like gulls.

“Gulls will eat anything and go anywhere. Plovers are highly specific in what they eat and the environment in which they’re eating. We tend to assign an intrinsic value to most living things. But for some species, that importance isn’t as obvious. We might not see the magnitude of the role they play in the ecosystem, but they still fit into a special niche,” said Thomas.

What makes this species of plover unique is its selective breeding habits, according to the society. The coastal population of Western Snowy Plovers remains on the coast year-round and will not breed with the interior population. The birds are also picky with their diet, which consists of insects and worms found in wracks of seaweed, or piles of washed up seaweed along the shore.

Cheryl Egger says she’s been involved in protecting and observing the Western Snowy Plovers for about 12 years and is also involved with the society’s conservation committee.

“What people need to understand is when plovers recognize a predator, even if it’s a leashed dog, they are absolutely terrified. A dog running through a roost is catastrophic to their roosting season,” Egger said. “These plovers were here before us. We need to respect that.”

The Western Snowy Plovers typically breed between May and September. During their nonbreeding season up until May, plovers roost, rest up and build fat stores to prepare for the next season of breeding. It is the only shore bird that breeds on the beach locally, without migrating.

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