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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Snowy plover nesting season gets underway

Snowy plover nesting season gets underway
By Times Staff
Santa Maria Times
Feb. 28, 2009

Access to Vandenberg Air Force Base beaches will be restricted again - for the next seven months - to help a small shorebird whose population there doubled after dropping dramatically a decade ago and may be declining again.
Nesting season for the western snowy plover kicks off Sunday and continues through Sept. 30, which means all but one-half mile of Surf Beach - the closest shoreline access for Lompoc Valley residents - will be closed to public. The beach section will be open 8 a.m. to
6 p.m. daily.
Except for small segments of Wall and Minuteman beaches, other beaches on Vandenberg will be closed too. Both Wall and Minuteman beaches are open only to those with regular access to Vandenberg.
Closures occur because the snowy plover is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Beach restrictions began a decade ago to guard plovers during nesting season.
"I would say the measures have been successful in reducing disturbances," said Steve Kirkland, a biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. "The factors affecting breeding success are pretty convoluted, both at this specific site and throughout the whole range. I think they are still helpful."
Weather, predation and food availability also play a part in plovers having a successful nesting season and boosting their population. For instance, last fall Vandenberg biologists noted a mid-season incident of high winds mixed with high tides, likely reducing the total number of fledglings during the 2008 season.
Because Vandenberg sits on federal land, the base rules related to the protecting species are more strict than visitors see at nearby beaches, such as Oceano Dunes States Vehicular Recreation Area or Rancho Guadalupe Beach Park.
Federal regulators say Vandenberg's beaches are critical to the plover's recovery because they host 20 percent of the bird's population. Under the plover recovery plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says Vandenberg must have a population of 400 adult breeding birds maintained over 10 years to consider delisting the species.
The number of adult snowy plovers at Vandenberg dove to just 78 in 1999, and gradually climbed to a high of 420 in 2004. Since then, the numbers have fallen to 171 in 2007.
Last season, 207 adults built about 295 nests and hatched
324 chicks, base officials said.
In the 1990s, linear restrictions - basically a line in the sand - were implemented to keep beach users out of the sand, but those rules often were ignored. From 1994 to 1998,
adult plover numbers ranged from 132 to 239.
The tiny bird makes well-camouflaged nests in small dents in the sand.
"Closing beaches prevents the crushing of eggs and chicks by people walking in the sand, and also eliminates human disturbance that causes adult plovers to abandon nests," said Darryl York, a 30th Civil Engineer Squadron wildlife biologist. "The eggs and chicks are almost impossible to see by the untrained eye."
People coming too close to nests can scare adults away from incubating eggs and cause them to ultimately abandon the nest, officials said.
After efforts to completely close all of Vandenberg's beaches, military officials sought an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that allows people some access, while continuing to protect plovers. Only a predetermined number of violations are allowed; once the limit is reached the beach must close for the season.
Those limits are: 50 for Surf; and 10 apiece for Minuteman and Wall.
Vandenberg recorded 31 violations the last two seasons on all three beaches. Otherwise, the numbers for the past eight seasons ranged from a low of 17 in 2003 to a high of 62 in 2006.
Violations count as any entry into the closed areas. Beach closures also include a prohibition on pets, horses, flying objects such as kites and Frisbees - birds can mistake them for predators - and collecting driftwood for shelters or fires.
While entry to Surf is restricted to 8 a.m. through 6 p.m. daily, people with base access will be able use Wall and Minuteman beaches from sunrise to sunset on a trial basis, officials said. However, if five or more violations at either of these beaches are detected, the open hours will revert to 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Plover season also kicks off at other area beaches, where various rules and restrictions are employed.
For instance at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, large areas are fenced off with special "exclosures" designed to keep out people and vehicles.
Other beaches have linear restrictions, meaning people essentially must stay on wet sand and remain out of the dunes.
At UCSB's Coat Oil Point Reserve, dogs on leashes will be allowed, with police officers positioned between Coal Oil Point Preserve and Ellwood Beach to issue either warnings or citations to owners not follow leash laws.


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