By Outreach and Communications Director Kristin Butler
is celebrating our 40th Anniversary. For almost half that time we have worked to help these birds.
Western Snowy Plovers are a threatened species, their numbers declining across the Pacific coast because they are displaced from the beaches they like to live on by human activity.
For 18 years, SFBBO biologists have studied the population of plovers that live on the Bay’s dry pond beds, searching and banding, and stomping in wet March mud to make depressions that dry into camouflage. We are part of a range-wide effort determined to increase plover population numbers and awareness about this little bird's plight.
A Scientist’s Dedication to Birds
Since 2013, Ben has worked in our plover program. As a graduate student at San Jose State, he studied what they ate when they wintered here. Later, he arrived in the field before dawn to direct crews doing construction on the nearby South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project away from plover nests. He's taken Scouts to the area to remove man-made structures where predators perch, and has given talks to the employees of Silicon Valley tech giants about the importance of the species to gain their support.
During his first year with SFBBO he encountered a banded adult male and has caught sight of the bird every year since, faithfully raising a new brood of chicks. Over time this fathering bird became a kind of touchstone for Ben, a partner in his work to increase plover numbers along the Bay.
The work can be disheartening because plovers face so many threats, including predation by raptors, corvids, and mammals such as red foxes, coyotes, and skunks.
But this year, a hard one for people, has been a good one for these birds as Ben’s team banded the largest number of plovers since our work began – 152 chicks, and 20 adults.
A Human Corridor of Help
The juveniles in the carrier had had a rougher start than most when, still in their eggs, they were abandoned by their parents.
Ben, who works with his team each spring and summer to find plover nests and band chicks before they race into the world, discovered them on a routine visit to Ravenswood ponds in Menlo Park, struggling to hatch.
He transported the eggs to the Ohlone Humane Society Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Newark, where they were kept safe overnight, and then SFBBO Biologist Josh Scullen drove them to our partners at International Bird Rescue, who accomplished an impressive feat by helping them break free of their shells and nursing them into health.
Ben and I were here to take them to Eden Landing to join the largest group of plovers in the Bay Area, serving as just one section of a kind of “human corridor” of groups that coordinate with one another to help wildlife negotiate the urban world.
Ben had driven up to Fairfield to retrieve them, and attached tiny black, orange, white, and aqua bands in various combinations to their delicate legs so that he or others might re-sight them someday and know if they had moved, become parents, were Ok.
Ben stopped walking and pointed to a subtle line where the tan dirt met white. As I stood still I could just barely see them - dozens of round birds skittering to the side and watching our approach. His goal to steer the youngsters toward the group, Ben laid the carrier facing the line and we readied our cameras for the birds' release.
At first the juveniles hesitated, then moved out of the carrier, and stood looking around them, and at us.
Then suddenly they took to the sky - the three of them circling higher and higher, together above our heads. The hazy smoke from summer wildfires worked strangely in our favor as the birds’ bodies stood out clearly against the gray.
In all his years at SFBBO, Ben had only participated in one other plover release and he’d expected the birds would immediately join the flock.
“What do you make of that?” he said as he watched them soar.
As I watched, the only word that came was “Joy!”
This story is the first in SFBBO's 40th Anniversary series "Forty from the Field."
SFBBO is looking for people with excellent bird ID skills to volunteer in our plover and tern community science program to survey for plovers so we can learn how these and other Bay Area plovers are doing. Please visit our website and fill out a volunteer application.
Wingbeat is a blog where you can find the most recent stories about our science and outreach work. We'll also share guest posts from volunteers, donors, partners, and others in the avian science and conservation world. To be a guest writer, please fill out our Volunteer Application below.