OUT ON THEIR OWN
Walking along the beaches of Coal Oil Point Reserve, you witness a bevy of dolphins playfully lifting above the Pacific Ocean, with seagulls seemingly playing with their mammal friends.
Only feet away, beachgoers don’t realize they are among an endangered species — one that got a bit larger on Thursday morning.
The Western snowy plover utilizes Coal Oil Point as one of its chosen habitats, with nests of eggs commonly found. On this foggy morning, the Santa Barbara Zoo, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the reserve itself excitedly ushered seven chicks into the wild, mere weeks after being rescued due to dangerous circumstances.
“These are rewarding days,” said Rachel Ritchason, the Zoo’s director of collections. “Our goal is to always get them back out here in their natural habitat.”
These particular seven plovers were rescued from Ormond Beach, South Oso Flaco (north of Guadalupe) and Oceano Dunes.
Coal Oil Point Reserve is one of three commonly used reintroduction spots near Vandenberg and San Buenaventura.
“It begins here, right where it ends — right here on the beaches,” Ms. Ritchason explained.
A stable of local conservation experts and their docents monitor the snowy plovers at Coal Oil Point up to four times a week, according to Reserve Conservation Specialist Jessica Nielsen.
During the monitoring, they use high-end camera equipment to spot the otherwise inconspicuous birds, particularly looking for snowy plovers that are resting upon nests. If nests are found, they are GPS marked and workers will notate how many eggs are in the nest. Over time, if it seems as though the nest is not being monitored naturally, workers will look for predator tracks — normally either crows or small skunks. If nests seem to be abandoned and there are still viable eggs, the workers have special federal permits to gather the eggs and deliver them to the Santa Barbara Zoo.
“We have such a special partnership with the zoo,” Ms. Nielsen said. “They help plovers survive when they might otherwise not make it.”
Once at the zoo, the eggs are incubated. With snowy plovers actually precocial birds, it usually only takes 24 to 48 hours for a chick to begin feeding itself. At this point, they are weaned off the 98-degree heat that is used to incubate, released into a behind-the-scenes pen at the zoo to begin flighting and foraging for their own food.
After 35 days and reaching 30 grams in weight — and maintaining it — the plovers are ready to be released back into the wild.
With the program in its fourth year, the releases have jumped from two to seven to 13 to an estimated 20 this year.
“We are very careful with our interactions with the birds, we don’t want them to be comfortable with humans,” Ms. Ritchason said.
“The need to have a healthy fear of us in order for the release into the wild to be successful,” Ms. Nielsen added.
Humans are one of the snowy plovers’ biggest predators, with Ms. Ritchason pointing to “irresponsible beach use” as one of the reasons the snowy plovers’ population size continues to go backward, with the birds’ habitat continuously being hindered.
That’s why days like Thursday are so important, as all of the conservation organizations can showcase how a little extra care can help an entire species rebound and thrive.
“(Releasing the snowy plovers) is great for awareness, for the story and for what people can do in our backyard, in our town, and in our spaces,” Ms. Ritchason said. “A lot of times, we say conservation and we think of animals in Africa or South America. But this is something that anybody who lives in Santa Barbara can do. They can help these birds. So, I think our messaging is really important, and that message would be responsible beach use.”
The zoo and reserve continue to also take their responsibility seriously as well, as over the past three weeks, the zoo has received 14 additional snowy plover eggs from Coal Oil Point, saved by manager Chris Sandoval, who lives there. Around 9 p.m., a very high tide threatened a number of nests, so Mr. Sandoval went out with a flashlight at 9 p.m. and rescued as many eggs as he could find. It’s the most viable eggs that the Zoo has had at any given time.
Ms. Ritchason knows that in an ideal world, human intervention wouldn’t be needed for the snowy plovers to thrive, but she also knows that the zoo can be a great “backup plan.”
“We always have the capacity, if at a breeding site that some major disruption threatens the plovers, we can help. We obviously don’t want to see that happen,” Ms. Ritchason said. “I think every one of us at the zoo would be happy to be without a job if we weren’t need to help these animals.
“But they do need help, and we’ve got the resources to do that. It’s a really rewarding project to be a part of.”