Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

Patience, Hope, and Teamwork: Reflections on the 2020 Snowy Plover Season

Excerpted from our 2019-20 Annual Report

by Carleton Eyster, Avian Ecologist

The field season began in March as it always does, with Western Snowy Plovers laying eggs throughout Monterey Bay and Point Blue staff and partners placing more than ten miles of cable fencing to protect them. It’s part of Point Blue’s work to safeguard our vibrant coastal ecosystems for wildlife and people (see page 9 for more). But just as nesting activity heightened, shelter-in-place orders sent Point Blue biologists home, and I began to learn what patience really means.

A Western Snowy Plover banded adult near nest with egg. Photo: Kriss Neuman/Point Blue.

As a career shorebird ecologist, I was not accustomed to missing field work in April, one of the busiest months of plover nesting activity. Typically my attention is focused on these federally threatened shorebirds that spend their entire lives on the same beaches we all enjoy. Once our monitoring and resource protection efforts were deemed essential by the state, we quickly mobilized and returned to the field to locate birds and newly established nests.

And we adapted. Knowing that it wouldn’t be a typical year for meeting project objectives, we had to adjust our expectations in order to ensure everyone’s health and safety. The entire team, along with our incredible State Parks partners, rallied to support each other in ways we couldn’t have anticipated. From spending many hours navigating new safety guidelines and permissions with partner agencies to keeping up project momentum by analyzing data from home, we each tapped into our strengths to help stay resilient.

Meanwhile, many restless beachgoers were waiting eagerly to return to their familiar outdoor refuge. But the generally shy and retiring plovers, which rely on camouflage and avoidance, had been busy settling into the quiet spaces inadvertently created by the sheltering orders and beach closures.

The plovers had re-occupied Sunset State Beach near Watsonville, with six nests situated within a few hundred meters of a lifeguard tower, a popular campground, and a day-use parking lot. With the area slated for reopening to the public, quick work with local partners ensured the parking lot remained closed until it was safe for the birds.

As more beaches began to reopen, the largely successful effort to protect the plovers over the remaining weeks of egg-laying and chick-rearing was made possible by a diverse cast of engaged, hopeful individuals. State Parks staff, birdwatchers, and coastal residents all pitched in—from a 9-year old birdwatcher who alerted me to a plover with an injured leg to a seasoned birder who located and helped protect one of the few nests found in northern Santa Cruz County in a decade.

Although the season ended as it began—with uncertainty about what was coming next—we completed our 44th continuous year of studying the breeding ecology of Western Snowy Plovers on Monterey Bay. Thanks to our coordinated efforts, two of the Sunset State Beach nests hatched successfully. And on September 3rd, I confirmed the survival of the last two juveniles of the season, as ash from the destructive fires in Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties washed up on shore.

Our work with these remarkable birds, like any threatened or endangered species, requires a great deal of adaptive response, patience, hope, and most importantly, collective effort. The unprecedented challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and recent wildfires have acutely underscored the importance of resilience in our climate-smart conservation work and in our own lives. My experience in the field this year on Monterey Bay has convinced me that the work to negotiate our collective health and the health of our planet requires that we all work together. I am certain it is only collective effort, girded with patience and hope, that will allow us to adapt and thrive.

Learn more about our snowy plover and other shorelines work here.
Read more about our impact and work over the 2019-20 season in our latest Annual Report.