Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Bird is the Word: Making Room for Snowy Plovers

Western snowy plover. Photo by Michael L. Baird

If you've been on the Oregon Coast Trail, you've seen signs about snowy plovers: the little shorebirds that nest right on the dry sand. Anything that flushes them from their nest leaves their eggs vulnerable to predators. Their numbers are way down on the Oregon Coast, which is why they're listed as a threatened species. To encourage successful nesting and to try and get their populations back up, various state and federal agencies agreed on a management plan that lowers threats to this bird without actually blocking humans' access to the beach (at least the wet sand portions) as guaranteed in the Oregon Beach Bill. In short: mid-March through mid-September (prime OCT hiking season), parts of the dry sand and dunes are off-limits to people as well as to dogs (on or off leash) and even kite-flying. Read details here. (But this USFS page is pretty useless to thru-hikers because it doesn't have any maps. Good luck.)

I was contacted by Lisa Romano of the Siuslaw National Forest (manages land adjacent to much of the central coast and Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area) who asked that I spread the word. The USFS has noticed a lot of OCT thru-hikers camping in plover-restricted areas, and they acknowledge that it's probably because people peeling off the PCT this summer haven't done a lot of homework and thus aren't aware of these restrictions or why they're in place. Also, most of the signage about this is at the trailheads, not on the beach itself, so thru-hikers may not see it. And as I mentioned, I don't know of any good maps of the off-limits areas that are detailed enough to be useful to an OCT hiker. (USFS says they're working on putting more detailed maps together in time for the 2018 hiking & plover nesting seasons.)

I have mixed feelings about this whole program myself. Habitat loss, not kite flying, is why the birds are in decline. Much of that is from widespread planting of European beachgrass, which continues and which is changing the nature of the shoreline environment. It seems silly to me to put so much effort into preserving nest sites for one particular species when we're in the middle of the largest, fastest extinction event in the history of the Earth. Literally. You know that, right? Humans caused it, and we need to deal with it. And really, our only chance of slowing that process is if more humans can get outside and see what's out there in the wild world and start to care and start to focus on widespread HABITAT CONSERVATION so that whatever species that are still here can maybe not die off. So I really really hate to see barriers put up blocking people's access to natural areas. On the other hand, the Oregon Coast is hundreds of miles long, and all they're asking is that you walk on the wet sand and that you maybe walk a mile or two farther before putting up your tent.

SO PLEASE DON'T CAMP IN THE IDENTIFIED SNOWY PLOVER NESTING AREAS OF THE BEACH. Which is frustrating, I know, because there are already so many restrictions about where you can camp on the beach (not adjacent to city limits, not adjacent to state parks.) I think all these areas are all mentioned in my book Day Hiking: Oregon Coast, in the OCT sections, EXCEPT I failed to mention that not only is camping not allowed at the mouth of Tenmile Creek (in the Oregon Dunes south of Winchester Bay) but for 1.5 miles south of the creek as well. USFS folks suggest thru-hikers on the central coast look for trail posts in the dunes and follow trails inland a bit, past the foredune, where you're free to bivouac (as long as it's in the national forest. Including the Oregon Dunes. But not on Cascade Head. Sigh.) 

A little bird ID clarification: An OCT hiker I follow on Instagram mentioned the joy of walking along the shoreline with flocks of snowy plovers rising from the waves. If they're in flocks, they're NOT snowy plovers. They might be sanderlings, which forage at the edge of the waves, often in large groups. It's common to see them in winter on the Oregon Coast. They tend to head north around April to breed; maybe some are back, or maybe some don't leave at all? I don't know, I'm not really a birder. But they're not snowy plovers. Plovers tend to be loners and are SUPER hard to spot because they blend in with their surroundings so well. If you see one, consider yourself lucky ... and keep your distance. They're easily spooked.
Sanderling. Photo by Dick Daniels
I'll give Lisa Romano the last word:

"I had the unique pleasure earlier this week of seeing some day-old plover chicks that were being banded. These little guys are the size of a cotton ball and have perfect camouflage, so they’re really impossible to see out on the sand. Even the most careful hiker can inadvertently put these chicks at risk, which is why we have these restrictions. We so appreciate everyone out there sharing the beach with these little guys!"
Plover chicks a few days old. Photo by Adam Kotaich/USFS



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