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A freshly banded plover chick
A freshly banded plover chick

I Need a Plover*

It’s a little before 7 a.m. on a clear and brisk morning in July. The sun is just peeking up over the hills of the East Bay, and I’m running across the uneven salt-and-gypsum crust of a dry former salt-production pond, jumping across slough traces and trying not to step on the mounds of dense vegetation that pose serious ankle-roll potential. I’m wearing knee-high mud boots and a backpack** and carrying some snares and a mallet.

I’m trying to keep up with Ben Pearl of the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory (SFBBO), who is not only much younger than me but who does this kind of field work all day every day for about half of the year, while I mostly type and talk on Zoom calls. Ben is SFBBO’s science director for western snowy plover, a ground-nesting species whose Pacific Coast population is listed as Threatened by both the federal and state Endangered Species Acts. Ben and his SFBBO colleagues spend incredibly long days each year from March through September surveying suitable plover habitats, watching plovers establish nests, and tracking their success or (sadly – too often, mostly due to predation) failure to hatch and then fledge the chicks to make their own way out in the world.

Ben’s plan was to put two color bands on each leg of the newly hatched plover chicks and – if possible – an adult as well. We’re running because the chicks are precocial: able to run quickly shortly after hatching. The parents brooding the eggs will scatter at the first sign of bipedal hominids (i.e., people), and the chicks won’t be far behind them. If we take too long to get from the truck to the nest site, the chicks could well have scattered off in multiple directions by the time we get there. Since they are so well camouflaged, if they get more than about 6 or 8 feet from the nest before we catch them, there is a good chance we won’t find them. And that would be bad: we’d have scared them from their nests, scattered their parents, and left them highly vulnerable to predators on land and from the sky.

It's important to band these plover chicks (and ideally, also the adults) because it’s the only method we have to track the reproductive success and survival of western snowy plovers that use the dry salt panne habitats that are left in a few places around the Restoration Project’s South Bay locations. If you’ve been tracking our Project for a while, you probably know how challenging and vital it is to achieve a complicated balance between restoring as much tidal marsh habitat as we can while also helping other species that have grown accustomed to (and often dependent on) one or more of the different types of former salt-production pond habitats that still remain. One of those species is the western snowy plover.

Normally, most of the Pacific Coast population of western snowy plovers would have nested on coastal sandy beaches, as they are perfectly camouflaged to blend in there. But the amount and quality of that habitat has also diminished in the last century. This absolutely adorable and delicate and charming bird*** has been resourceful enough to make nests where the sun shines on shiny white-gray salt pannes in the South Bay. Those salt pannes provide a very similar habitat to that used by the interior population of western snowy plovers in places like the Great Salt Lake, and now support over 10% of the entire Pacific Coast population! As more and more places in our project area and beyond are restored to tidal marshes, those salt pannes are being taken away. It’s critical that we successfully meet the needs of this species while doing as much marsh restoration as we can. It's challenging because this is a habitat type that is directly inconsistent with the more common goal of tidal marsh restoration, yet plovers are also a special-status species with a particularly narrow and somewhat idiosyncratic**** habitat need.

In our Phase 2 project at the Ravenswood Ponds, next to the City of Menlo Park, we are working to strike this difficult balance by raising an existing berm between two large ponds – R4 and R3 – to better separate them from each other. Pond R4 will be breached late in 2022 (if all goes according to plan) to restore it to about 295 acres of tidal marsh. Pond R3 (at 270 acres, just to the south) is being retained and enhanced for plover nesting habitat. We’ve put in water control structures to help lower the water levels inside of R3 to make it dry and ready for plover nests each spring, and we’re raising up some of the berms around it so that it stays dry for them too. We’re also doing a study to better understand how we can effectively control predators so more plover eggs hatch and fledge instead of becoming food.

If we can do all of that, we will have a better chance of striking this complicated balance between plover and tidal marsh species. But we couldn’t do any of this without the dedicated and talented people at SFBBO, who work amazingly hard and long hours to survey and track plovers not only on our project areas but all around the edges of San Francisco Bay. Huge thanks to Ben and the whole team there.

* This title chosen with great appreciation to John (Cougar) Mellencamp and his 1979 classic, “I Need a Lover,” which includes the lyrics, “that won’t drive me crazy, someone who will thrill me and then go away…”. We really do need plover, and we want them to nest, lay eggs, hatch, and fledge, which really would be thrilling. And then we need them to get out of the way so we can finish the construction I describe in the latter part of this post. It’s almost too perfect. And it beat out a modification of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Count Your Plover.”
** This is probably obvious, but just to be clear: this is not all I am wearing. I am also in pants, a shirt, a hat, etc. This blog post would paint an even more surreal and ridiculous picture if that were not the case.
*** Seriously cute. See, for example, the photos here and here.
**** It’s not completely unique, though, because endangered California least terns can and do also share these needs.

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