LEADBETTER — Decades worth of time and millions of dollars have gone into bringing back a tiny threatened shorebird. As native plants reassert themselves, reshaping the dunes and opening up habitat, people who’ve devoted careers trying to rebuild western snowy plover populations are finally beginning to feel hopeful.
“It appears we’ve kind of turned a corner and our work has paid off,” said William Ritchie, a biologist at Willapa National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge has restored and maintains several hundred acres for plover habitat, working in collaboration with Washington State Parks. This year, Oregon and Washington, which are considered a single plover recovery unit by Fish and Wildlife Services, had a preliminary count of more than 250 breeding adults.
There’s still a ways to go — in 2007, the estimated cost for plover recovery efforts on the West Coast was nearly $150 million with a prediction for delisting to occur by 2047. Recovery units from Washington to California have yet to show that western snowy plover populations are stable, and intensive monitoring will likely continue for years to come, as will beach closures during the birds’ nesting season.
But this year, researchers on the Peninsula have reason to hope. They counted 28 nests and there were possibly four more they never found though they saw the fledglings later. The year before there had been only 10 nests. The graph has gone up and down over recent years though mostly down until this year.
Also this year both Oregon and Washington met the metric that indicates stable or increasing plover populations, a ratio of one plover chick to every adult male. Most of those numbers came from Oregon where more habitat and suitable nesting conditions have been available for many years. Washington federal and state biologists, however, believe their state could once again provide significant habitat for the plovers.
Plovers, which range from Washington to Baja California, Mexico, are not high up on the food chain in the way other species of interest are, animals like dolphins, bears or wolves. Like those animals, plovers can, yes, be adorable, but they are also incredibly difficult to see.
When they are in their preferred habitat — wide sandy stretches of beach dotted with sparse vegetation and the scattering of shells, driftwood and sea plants that high tides leave behind — they are nearly invisible. They tend to be skittish and don’t often stick around to be photographed.
It is not obvious exactly how plovers benefit their ecosystem or what would happen if they suddenly disappeared.
But, said Ritchie, “Any time you lose any of the diversity of species out of the wild, out of an ecosystem, it begins to unravel. … These systems are so complex often we don’t know the ramifications until later.”
And the work to restore the habitat western snowy plovers need has had a number of unexpected secondary benefits to other animals and to plants.
Visitors, and even locals, on the Long Beach Peninsula gaze out at the grassy, rolling dunes leading down to the beach and think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But this isn’t at all how the beach used to look, said Ritchie, and that luscious, spiky grass is one of the plover’s greatest enemies.
Introduced to stabilize shorelines and keep sands from shifting so much with the wind, non-native beach grasses took off in the 1960s and have since choked out the native plants, filling in areas where plovers and other birds would otherwise nest and feed.
As refuge and state park workers cleared the coastline at the Peninsula’s northern tip of non-native grasses, the hardy seeds of native plants finally got the breathing room they’d been lacking for decades. In restored habitat areas, they’re everywhere now.
Bringing back the native plants has also brought a host of pollinators, bees and other insects. The non-native grass didn’t have anything that attracted them, but the native plants are dotted with blooms. Not much is known about the interactions between these insects and these plants, Ritchie said.
Without the non-native grasses pulling the sand together into hilly dunes, the wind took charge again, redistributing the sand into low hummocks and spreading the native plant seed even farther. When the streaked horned lark was listed as endangered by Washington state, the work done to build plover habitat began to benefit them as well.
Ritchie has worked with endangered and threatened species before.
“You’re trying to answer questions about why this species is declining,” he said. “In that regard, it’s putting pieces together and figuring out what the missing pieces are.”
For plovers, the issue has clearly been habitat loss, but they have had to weather other threats too, from predators to human traffic through the dunes.
As animals respond to humans and humans respond to animals, as habitats fall and are brought back, the results can be strange and unpredictable.
For example, Ritchie and his crew haven’t used metal cages to protect nests for the last several years after one woman spotted an elk stopping to lick the metal — licking off the salt that rode the ocean air and collected on the cages, Ritchie surmised.
But, as he thought about that single sighting more, a puzzle piece clicked into place.
For weeks, they had been confused by a series of abandoned nests. Without any apparent warning or reason, otherwise happy, healthy, caring plover parents had left behind nests full of incubating eggs. At first, park and refuge staff thought the parents had been killed, but the plovers were later spotted well and alive on the beach. The only sign of intrusion were elk prints in the sand.
The elk, Richie and his crew realized, were stopping at these caged nests to lick them and the harassed plover parents, believing they were in danger, had fled.
The elk were not after the birds or their eggs, but the plovers do face threats from actual predators.
In an earlier attempt to revive plover habitat, crews created a sort of oasis in the midst of the non-native grasses and then, because plovers often prefer to run rather than fly, they carved out corridors in the grass to guide the birds back to the habitat. The plovers ran gamely down these created pathways to the habitat prepared for them.
But then the corvids — crows and ravens — realized what was going on. It was like the bird version of a cowboy movie but instead of a stagecoach rushing through a dusty western canyon where brigands, lurked high in the cliffs with guns drawn, the crows and ravens hid in the grassy dunes on either side of the corridors and waited for the plovers.
So staff ditched the corridors and began opening up the whole area as habitat. For the same reason, they’ve had to get rid of unnecessary signs in the area. Predators like high places, Ritchie explained, and plover-hungry birds would perch on these signs watching for their prey.
It’s also the reason Ritchie and those who work with him during nesting season now use a small broom to sweep away their tracks when they go to examine nests. The crows had figured out that at that time of year the human footprints led to nests.
Also, there are now a number of bathrooms available near the beach when clamming tides and plover nesting season overlap. Before the refuge began providing bathrooms, clammers would retreat into the dunes when nature called. This, perhaps understandably, disturbed the plovers.