Snowy Plover Rehabilitation Program raises nine threatened birds
Snowy plovers are good at going unnoticed. Their small, light bodies meld with the sand — the substance in which they shallowly bury their eggs.
The camouflage that can save them from predators jeopardizes the birds in the presence of unsuspecting beachgoers. A nosey dog or distracted tourist can easily step on a nest.
The Snowy Plover Rehabilitation Program, a partnership of the Santa Barbara Zoo, UCSB and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, helps save the threatened species.
The program released nine western snowy plovers at Coal Oil Point Reserve Tuesday morning. The nine birds came to the Santa Barbara Zoo as eggs and left ready to bond with wild plovers.
Keepers from the zoo brought the birds to the beach hours before the release and let them acclimate to the environment while staying safe inside their cage.
So when keepers Stephen Haug and Katie Kranda opened the wire mesh for the birds to fly free, the plovers didn’t seem to be overwhelmed. They didn’t fly out.
The snowy plovers strolled out of their cage and paused in the sand.
Ellie Cullip, a keeper who has worked in the program since its inception in 2016, said the plovers’ response was “very good.”
She describes the releases as “such a cool experience.”
“It’s hard not to get choked up and cry because you want them to do so well, and you’ve been watching them this whole time. And you just hope for the best for them,” she said. “And it’s out of our hands now.
“That’s a hard part of it is knowing we can’t do anything more. Every time I do this, it reminds me why I do it.”
Mr. Haug and Ms. Kranda have worked with the plovers for less than a year. They see at every milestone, from eggs to “lumpy little cotton balls on toothpick legs” to fledglings to birds.
“It’s good to know that we are doing our part in helping them come up and out,” Mr. Haug told the News-Press.
This is the third and last release of the year. In total, the program has helped 72 snowy plovers.
“For me personally, the goal would be to never take in any more birds, because that means that they’re doing great in the wild. So it’s kind of bittersweet that as much as we want our program to be successful, we don’t want it to have to be there,” Ms. Cullip said.
The zoo invested in an incubation room and flight pen in 2019 as a result of the growing program. Ms. Cullip thanks donors for the ability to have a dedicated space for the plovers,
“It’s very humbling that they want to help take care of our zoo and the surrounding animals, the native animals that are in their own backyard,” she said.
When she brought the nine plovers to the beach Tuesday morning, she saw lots of wild plovers.
Coal Oil Point Reserve staff have tracked 46 snowy plover fledglings this year. There once was no snowy plover breeding at the reserve.
Coal Oil Point Reserve Nature Center is celebrating 20 years of preservation efforts for the snowy plovers.
A portion of the beach is roped off to protect the plovers, and signs warn beachgoers to be cognizant of the precious species. A docent is on site during daylight hours, seven days a week, to educate visitors about snowy plovers and how to protect them.
“Because a lot of people that come here to play don’t read the sign, we need that contact — direct contact,” Reserve Director Cristina Sandoval said. “People develop an intimate relationship once they know something, put a name on it and they can recognize it. And that’s what we want, we want snowy plovers to become part of people’s lives.”
She hopes other beaches will mimic her model and preserve snowy plovers.
“Imagine all these beautiful beaches that had kelp and plovers roaming around and now they’re groomed and have no birds. Imagine if they can be recovered,” she said. “And people can still go to the beach and surf like here; that would be a dream come true.”
David Sherer, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura, says there is potential for plovers.
“I think plovers are one of the best species for the Endangered Species Act PR side,” he said. “Because there is a very manageable threshold at which they could be recovered if we reached those numbers.
“Coal Oil Point is a pristine example of how human and wildlife interaction can coexist without anybody really having to give anything up. So it’s a fantastic model.”
Surfers enjoyed the beach Tuesday morning as the plovers familiarized themselves with their new home.