Snowy Plover Survey, First Quarter 2013

By Judy Thompson

Photography by Ward Thompson

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I was carrying out the first quarterly snowy plover survey of 2013, Beach 8 in Malibu, from Malibu Colony Drive to the end of Malibu Road.  Low tide was scheduled for 12:15 p.m. or so, and our start time was good because at medium to high tide, there is no beach at all, and even gulls would have found it hard going.  My photographer husband was with me.

When you’re with a group of people who know what they are doing, like Audubon Director of Interpretation Stacey Vigallon, it’s so easy.  She says, “That’s a -----, and you’ll see it running in and out of the surf / resting on rocks / flying over the beach.  Remember that its winter plumage is different than it is now.”  No prob! Easy ID!

But when you are slogging along on Beach 8 by yourself, with only your field guide and no one to ask–it’s aggravatingly difficult.  What ARE those ubiquitous cute little things churning like mad back and forth in front of the lapping surf?  Sanderlings or Western Sandpipers?  The book says it should be a WS by size, but the coloring (winter, it would seem) has SANDERLING written all over it.  Most Audubonians would know right off, and are at this minute thinking, “You dummy, it’s a -----.”  But where were these experts when I needed them?  I’ve settled on sanderling by reason of this little thing having no claw at the back of its ankle, a key for identifying this little bird.  I await advice.
All of that aside, my husband and I had spent two hours walking this narrow beach, most of it wet sand right up to the KEEP OUT signs on the beach house pilings.  No Snowy Plovers, but I hadn’t expected any.  Whimbrels, Marbled Godwits, Sanderlings or whatever they were, Western Grebes out there on the water, Black-bellied Plovers in winter dress (I think).  We had brilliant blue skies, 68º (and it’s JANUARY), no wind.  Truly pacific.  We decided to call it a day.  But I could see a stretch of wider beach and open sand just ahead (beyond the survey boundary) and I said, “No – let’s carry on a bit.”  Not 30 feet on, past sun bathers on blankets (and it’s JANUARY), there they were!  Little Snowy Plovers peeping out of depressions in the sand and poking about in dry sand just above the tide line, exactly where they were supposed to be.  What a surprise, as they had shunned Beach 8 previously.  I counted nine.

Triumph, for me and those little endangered birds, braving dogs, walkers, joggers, Pepperdine sun bathers, mothers with babies. Survey success!

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Published Western Tanager Vol. 79 No. 4 March/April 2013