Snowy Plover Conservation

snowy plovers

Program Overview

The Western Snowy Plover, Charadrius nivosus nivosus, is a shorebird that inhabits beaches and lake shores.  The Pacific Coast population of the Western Snowy Plover was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1993 because of declining populations mainly due to loss of habitat.  The stretch of beach between Isla Vista and Ellwood (including Sands Beach) was designated “Critical Habitat” in December of 1999; at the time of the critical habitat designation, the population in the entire Pacific Coast of the United States was estimated at less than 1,500 individuals.  Coal Oil Point Reserve (COPR), with its sandy beach, sand dunes, and adjacent estuary mouth, is one of a few choice west coast locations where Snowy Plovers can still breed and thrive.  

The breeding population of Snowy Plovers had disappeared for decades because of intense beach recreation. With public education and symbolic fences, they made a comeback.  This was the first site a breeding population of Snowy Plovers was recovered in US.  The COPR population now produces over 35 fledged chicks per year.  These efforts show that people can reverse the unfortunate trend to extinction by sharing space with other species.

Over 200 Western Snowy Plovers (includes Pacific and inland populations) feed and rest on Sands Beach, at Coal Oil Point Reserve, each winter.  This is the largest winter aggregation in the U.S.  Sands Beach is a very important place for Snowy Plovers because it provides high quality habitat for these birds.  Kelp from the rich forests in the ocean continuously washes ashore, creating wrack, which becomes food and shelter for many small invertebrates.  Beach hoppers, kelp flies, and other insects depend on the availability of kelp wrack on the beach.  Plovers and other shorebirds depend on the invertebrates for food.  

To understand how plovers are doing at Coal Oil Point Reserve, biologists monitor the population all year long.  Each nest is mapped into a GIS database and each chick is observed three times a week until they are capable of flying (fledged). It takes one month for an egg to incubate and another month for a chick to be old enough to fly. Through careful observation, the biologists can determine the fate of each nest. If a nest fails, the cause of mortality can be determined by looking for signs of high tides, wind, or predator tracks on the sand.  Each predator (skunk, raccoon, crow, etc) leaves a distinct footprint on the sand.

Sands Beach is open to the public all year, but portions of the dry sandy beach are closed.  These restrictions reduce disturbance from foot traffic near the wintering plovers and the main nesting area.  Between March 15th and September 15th, Snowy Plovers make their nests along the beach.  The nests are well camouflaged and, without the fence, could be unknowingly trampled by beach users.  The protective symbolic fence depends on voluntary compliance as it does not physically prevent people or dogs from walking under it.  Dogs are not permitted at Coal Oil Point Reserve so we ask dog owners to please exercise their dog at another beach.  Even the calmest dogs can become excited when they see birds or other wildlife, and Snowy Plovers have been killed by dogs at the reserve.  Research by USGS biologist, Dr. Kevin Lafferty, showed that a dog can cause 10 times more disturbance to a plover than a person walking by.  This is because some dogs actively chase the plovers and because plovers respond by flying away from dogs more often than they would fly from people.  Flying is one of the most demanding activities for birds and requires a lot of energy.

The plovers experience many pressures throughout the year.  They have to deal with people and their pets, predators, and extreme weather conditions.  The plovers and other declining species need your help.  Please support this and other programs that are attempting to bring this bird back from the threat of extinction.

What you can do to help the Snowy Plovers

1. Choose a beach which is not used by Snowy Plovers to exercise your dog.  
2. When walking up and down the beach, stay on the wet, hard-packed sand; the plovers use this area less than the upper beach. Don’t approach the fence as nests and chicks may be near.
3. Don’t leave remains of food or trash.  Left-over food attracts crows and other small mammals that prey on plover eggs.
4. If plovers react to you, retreat several paces and walk in a wide arc around them.
5. Become a volunteer docent and help teach the community about the plovers and sandy beach ecosystem.

Your cooperation will help us reach a balance between conservation and recreation.

Volunteer as a Snowy Plover Docent

More information on becoming a docent

COPR Publications on Western Snowy Plovers

Annual Reports

Other Publications