The Western snowy plovers had been enjoying a seaside sanctuary, a roped-off haven where they’ve created more nests and eggs than ever before recorded at Huntington beaches.
Wildlife experts had been tracking a dozen nests, each with several eggs, that had been discovered at state-run beaches since mid-April. A few surprisingly even popped up at Bolsa Chica State Beach, the first time seen on that stretch of beach.
The federally threatened birds were thriving – perhaps because of the beach shutdowns amid the coronavirus pandemic – until someone in the dark of night crushed nests and eggs, just days before some of the baby birds were expected to hatch.
State Parks officials saw the damage early Thursday, May 28; the ropes and fencing torn apart and the
protective cages that had been placed over the nests stolen.
“It’s really horrible,” said Lana Nguyen, environmental scientist for State Parks Orange Coast District.
Not only are officials searching for whoever may have caused the damage – filing a criminal investigation in partnership with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service – but they are also beefing up nighttime security with hopes of protecting those of the delicate birds that are left.
Harming the birds is a federal offense considering the their threatened status on the Endangered Species List since 1993.
The Western snowy plover population was once widespread along Pacific Coast, from Washington to Baja California. But a number of factors led to its demise: predation, habitat loss, human disturbance and development.
There was documented nesting attempts in 2011 and 2012 in Newport Beach and in 2017 there was the first documented nest in Huntington Beach.
In 2018, the species made headlines when two pairs of the Western snowy plovers nested, nurtured and successfully fledged four chicks at Huntington State Beach, one of the most popular public beaches in California, for the first time in more than five decades.
They were first found by California State Parks biologists within the Least Tern Natural Preserve, 12.4 acres of protected beach habitat created for endangered shorebirds. Another nest was found shortly after by a group of students doing a beach cleanup outside of the preserve.
So when nest after nest started showing up at various spots throughout Huntington Beach this past April, it was more than biologists had ever seen and showed promise for the species.
“We’re having a historic year for nesting at our state beaches, because of all the beach closures from COVID-19 and everything else,” Nguyen said. “It seems like the plovers and wildlife are really taking advantage. We’ve seen a huge increase of our nesting. It’s pretty exciting.”
The small shorebirds like to nest on the sandy beaches and locals were excited, asking questions as they passed signs and the fencing.
“These beaches are becoming more and more important to the species,” Nguyen said. “They are starting to come back. This year, you take people off the beach and boom, we had a huge increase.”
Nguyen and volunteers, including a team from the Sea and Sage Audubon, had been tracking the 12 nests – a big increase from last year’s four.
They put fencing up to protect the birds, signs to warn off people and staffers would hang around to do public outreach for those asking questions.
Nguyen said she’s grown an attachment to the birds, talking about how the males and females take turns with their nest, while the other gathers food. Once they hatch, both parents stick around for a day or two. Then, the female goes away to have another nest and the males sticks around to raise the chicks until they are fledging age, about 30 days old.
She said she grew eager as some of the chicks began to hatch, showing up each morning and finding a few had already popped out of their shells.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Nguyen showed up one morning to find three of the nests destroyed and several of the eggs crushed, the babies dead.
“It’s heartbreaking when you see all the effort and energy, and the birds are doing well, and there’s one thing out of your control,” she said. “It’s one thing if it was natural, flooding of the tide or crows. But to have a human come and vandalize a nest, it’s horrible. It’s hard to see and deal with that.”
But she’s trying to remain hopeful.
One of the female birds has been spotted in a potentially new nesting area.
“They are trying to re-nest,” she said. “They are trying to still keep on.”
State Parks officials will be putting in more protective fencing, cameras, signage and additional security, District Superintendent Kevin Pearsall said.
“We’re now increasing our monitoring at night,” he said. “We’re increasing our patrols to make sure those ones that are left have the opportunity to survive and the human impact doesn’t dampen their ability to thrive.”
Nguyen asked the public to stay clear of fences and signs and if someone sees a bird on the beach, leave it alone. Once the eggs hatch, the chicks are still around on the beach as they figure out how to fly.
“Let them be, give them space, don’t pick them up,” she said. “We’ll just continue to do outreach about how special it is these birds are nesting here. It’s pretty amazing.”
Source: Orange County Register