Snowy Plover guardians at Ormond Beach in Oxnard

Ventura Audubon is one of many chapters doing great things on the beach to protect Endangered Western Snowy Plover.

“Some eggs are hatching right now,” Cynthia Hartley said. I had just arrived at Ormond Beach in Oxnard, California to learn more about Ventura Audubon’s Snowy Plover program. In my position as the Coastal Chapter Network Manager, I have learned a great deal about the Western Snowy Plover, but wasn’t sure if I had ever seen one. That was about to change on this field trip. Cynthia is the biologist who monitors the nesting Snowy Plovers at Ormond Beach. We were joined on our walk by Ventura Audubon chapter members Bruce and Joyce Schoppe and Jim Susha, who have been very active in protecting this colony.
Ormond Beach, part of the Mugu Important Bird Area, is home to more than 240 bird species and federally designated as Western Snowy Plover critical habitat. Ventura Audubon secured funding for four biologists to monitor the Snowy Plovers and California Least Terns at Ormond Beach and Hollywood Beach. Cynthia visits Ormond Beach three times a week during the nesting season to keep track of the breeding adults, eggs, and chicks.

Cynthia and volunteers from Ventura Audubon also place fences and signs around the plover nesting areas to ask people to keep their distance and limit disturbance. Snowy Plovers can be frightened off their nests very easily by people and dogs, leaving the eggs vulnerable to hot, cold and windy conditions and predators such as gulls.

Some of the signs posted near the plover nests were created by children through the Sharing Our Shores program. Ventura Audubon chapter members visit local classrooms and talk to students about Snowy Plovers and other endangered shorebirds and what children can do to help. The students then designed signs to remind people that the beaches are for animals as well as people.

In addition to the symbolic fencing used to protect the plovers, Ventura Audubon partners with Oxnard City Corps to maintain semi-permanent fences which protect the dune areas where Snowy Plovers conduct courtship and establish nests. These fences are up year-round and need constant maintenance and annual repair.

Volunteer docents, known as "WSP ambassadors", spread the word to beach goers about the presence of these federally listed birds that are nesting right on the beach. Docents are especially valuable because of the outreach they do with owners of off leash dogs, which are an ever present problem on public beaches. The docent program is a collaboration between Ventura Audubon and California State Parks who provide training. Walter Fuller, the resident steward at Ormond,  is a super docent whose presence at the Arnold Road entrance has been transformative to the area.  His efforts have undoubtedly saved many nests.

Metal cages (called exclosures) are used around the snowy plover nests to help keep predators such as crows and ground squirrels from eating eggs. They also prevent nests from being run over by vehicles, stepped on by beach goers or destroyed by off-leash dogs.

Cynthia wanted to bring an exclosure back to the parking lot, so I volunteered to carry it back along the beach. She told me the best way to haul it back was by throwing it over my head. I now have some idea of what it is like to be a Snowy Plover parent, hunkering down inside a cage to try to protect my eggs and chicks!

The most exciting part of my visit was seeing some chicks that had just hatched. I could just make out two little fluff balls through my binoculars.

We also saw another nest with three speckled eggs.

Before breeding season begins, Ventura Audubon partners with Ventura Surfrider Foundation for an annual beach cleanup in February, to clean the beach in preparation for nesting season that starts (officially) on March 15. They also work with the land owners of Ormond Beach to provide advice and information on maintenance and long term restoration plans. Ventura Audubon collaborates with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a post-season review of the breeding season and then attends and presents data at the annual Western Snowy Plover rangewide meeting.

All along our shorelines, local Audubon chapter members and volunteers are diligently checking breeding colonies and recording data on nest and chick success. Through their efforts, chicks like the ones I saw hatching at Ormond have a chance to become adults and support thriving colonies on our beaches.

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