Planted oyster shells appear to be perfect for plover nests

<I>U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo</I><BR>Three Western snowy plover eggs, in the lower center portion of the photograph, blend in with beach sand and oysters shells at a restored nesting site near Leadbetter Point.

LEADBETTER POINT - A small, state-endangered bird is reaping the benefits of a coordinated effort between local oystermen and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In an innovative experiment, oyster shells are being used to restore snowy plover habitat at the Leadbetter Point refuge. Began in January 2002 with an initial donated dump truck load of oyster shells from the Nahcotta shellfish company Taylor Resources, the restoration area has been increased, and the birds are responding.

"It was an amazing year," said wildlife biologist Kirsten Brennan, who has been monitoring the site. "Kind of beyond my wildest dreams."

She found 22 nests inside the restored area this year, 16 of which hatched out chicks. Of the eight nests found outside the restoration area, only three hatched.

Last year 23 nests were found on the Peninsula. Of those, only nine hatched out chicks, with two of the successful nests found in the restoration area.

Brennan suspects there are additional successful nests that they did not find.

"The birds and their nests are extremely hard to see," she said, "and difficult to find."

When they do locate a nest, small scrapped indentations which the birds will line with pieces of oyster shell, the biologists will help protect them by using a "mini-enclosure." The enclosures, box-type structures made with a chicken-wire type of material, have a mesh size large enough to allow the plovers to leave and return to their nests while keeping out larger predators such as ravens and crows.

But, said Brennan, the oyster shells have played a huge role in this year's large hatchout of chicks. "That was really the key," she said. "The really solid block of shells was really successful."

"We're pretty pleased with the results," said Mark Weigardt with Taylor Resources. "It was amazing what the birds did with the oyster shells."

He said part of his motivation for helping the service with the plover project was the tremendous effort the service has put into eradicating the invasive grass, spartina.

"They've done a spectacular job of getting rid of spartina," he said. He described returning the favor as a "no-brainer."

The spartina invasion has threatened not only the wildlife of Willapa Bay, but the oyster industry as well by taking over the mudflats required to grow oysters.

Weigardt said he now receives some compensation for the huge amount of oyster shells used in the project. But, he admits, when he was first approached by Friends of Willapa National Wildlife Refuge member Rudy Schuver with a request for the initial donation, he almost turned Schuver down.

"I couldn't make sense of what he was trying to do," said Weigardt.

He credits Ed Hill and Philip Stamp with swaying his opinion. Hill volunteered to fill the dump truck and deliver it. "I figured, 'what the heck'" said Weigardt, now fully in support of the cooperative effort to save the plover, saying it is working extremely well. The project might be used as a template for other locations and help other birds at risk.

"I like to watch birds," he admits. "You got to give something back. We have to protect what we have."

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