Surveying the Snowy Plover: A Sighting with a Difference

By Judy Thompson, LAAS Member and Volunteer

October 3, 2012

A balmier day at the beach, Zuma Beach in Malibu, could not be imagined: clear, no wind, blue sea, blue sky, waves lazily lapping at the sand, warm.  And it was January.  And I was dressed in turtleneck, sweatshirt, nylon jacket lined with puffy fleece, hiking boots, corduroy slacks.  I was ready for Arctic conditions for my first quarterly snowy plover survey for the LA Audubon Society.  In addition I had a backpack with nuts, granola bars, two peeled and sectioned tangerines, and water; a clipboard and pen, and binoculars.  No Marine in Afghanistan was better prepared for the elements and the task at hand.

Stacey Vigallon, our able Audubon Director of Interpretation and trainer, gave me instructions, told me how to fill out the reporting form, and showed me photos of the little birds we would be looking for.  Snowy plovers are the cutest little things – and endangered, so it’s important to monitor their numbers, nesting sites, habits. Stacey also showed me photos of other plovers and shorebirds so I could compare them and identify the one I was after.  They all looked exactly alike.

We started out walking, she at the “wrack line” – where seaweed and debris pile up, and I further away from the water.  Trudging through that soft sand in my clodhoppers was – good exercise.  Not far along Stacey alerted me to a group – a hive – a flock – a social gathering? of snowy plovers.  I saw nothing.  She pointed to a patch in the hillocky dry sand where yes!  I could just see little heads with button eyes peeking above depressions where someone had dredged a shallow hole when walking or running.  Cutest!  We counted diligently – 23 birds.  We continued on, I beginning to raise a sweat in my Arctic gear.  Stacey motioned again that a hive of snowy plovers was in view.  I saw nothing; Stacey must have X-ray eyes.  This time they were ranged at intervals among clumps of seaweed.  I could be forgiven for not seeing those little humps among other little humps.  And so it went – we saw a total of 53 snowy plovers together.  And some black-bellied plovers, a curlew, a godwit, gulls.  How exciting!

Stacey had to get away and left me to survey the remaining beach.  She pointed to a murky speck far far away.  Sure – no problem!  There appeared not to be any bird of any description at that end of the beach, and Stacey agreed it would be unlikely that I saw any more of our specific targets.  Bird or no bird, that had to be reported.

I strode along in the sun with my clipboard, binoculars and hiking boots, having stashed my nice warm jacket in a handy sandy place where I could retrieve it when I walked back (along the endless miles of beach).  Not far along I did encounter a rare species: a man and woman and dog were just settling in to lawn chairs up on the rock berm that protected wealthy Malibu residents from raging Pacific storms, and people.  I looked up and acknowledged them (being a friendly sort), and they said hello and had the expectant look of wanting to chat.  I approached the bottom of the berm, waved my clipboard, and said, “Audubon bird survey!”, like a ninny.  The man clambered down the rocks.  Do I know him?  It is Malibu, after all.  Isn’t that --- ?  “I’m Pierce Brosnan, my wife Keely, and my dog.”  I forget the dog’s name.  It had an attractive bandana tied around his neck.  We chatted about snowy plovers and the new house they had recently built, up there beyond the chain link fence, graced with DayGlo orange No Trespassing signs.  He was down to earth and completely unpretentious, and I want my husband and me to be close friends with him and his wife, as soon as possible.

I waved goodbye and spent the next hour and a quarter trudging along to the murky speck end-point of the survey (just short of it actually; I had had it, and all my vittles were consumed), then turned and trudged back at least 40 miles to my car, confident in the knowledge that now I am an expert Audubon Snowy Plover surveyor.

Judy Thompson is a member and volunteer of Los Angeles Audubon, participating in Snowy Plover surveys every quarter, Least Tern monitoring, and helping Stacey Vigallon and Dorsey Highschoolers' with research. Please enjoy her description of her experience.  

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Published Western Tanager Vol 79 No. 2 Nov/Dec 2012