With Monitoring Limited, Someone Drove Through a Snowy Plover Nesting Site

Due to pandemic-related restrictions, vulnerable shorebirds may have to rely on the kindness of strangers this breeding season.

While surveying for new Snowy Plover nests on a California beach in late March, Cynthia Hartley was horrified to discover fresh tire tracks and shredded sand inside of a fenced-off nesting area. It was immediately clear to her what happened: Someone drove an ATV into the off-limits dunes for a joy ride. Amid the crisscrossed tire tracks, Hartley, who is executive director of the Ventura Audubon Society, saw that a plover nest—the first for the 2020 season—had come within inches of being smashed. 

The incident was, she says, the most egregious trespassing case she’s seen in a decade of patrolling Ormond Beach, a key nesting region for threatened Snowy Plovers in southern California. 

Now, she fears the scofflaw will be back. “There’s no one around to keep an eye out, and we just can’t ask our volunteers to come out here now,” she says.

Across the United States, including California, state and federal officials have issued shelter-in-place advisories to slow the spread of the coronavirus as the death toll rises. Although many of these allow for solo outdoor activities, these essential preventative measures also severely limit staff and volunteers of many organizations and government agencies that keep watch on sensitive nesting and wildlife areas.

At Ormond Beach, Hartley was still trying to personally check on nesting sites. But under typical circumstances, on-site monitors would have very likely been there already to deter or prevent the incident, she says. Three to five days a week, from the beginning of nesting season through its peak in July, the chapter would normally send volunteers, students, and staff to watch over nests, repair fencing, inform dog owners of the nearby plovers, maintain field cameras, and other tasks.

In some ways, the slowing of cities, air traffic, and vehicle use have limited upsides for environment and wildlife, including reduced air pollution and climate emissions. Some animals are reportedly exploring uncrowded streets in cities affected by lockdowns, including pigs in Barcelona, sika deer in Nara, Japan, and Wild Turkeys in Oakland, California, according to The Guardian (though widely-circulated reports of dolphins taking back Venice turned out to be false). 

Yet in many places, as social distancing orders have been put in place and events canceled, solo outdoor recreation is surging, leading to congestion on beaches and trails that could be dangerous for public health. California and Florida have responded by closing many parks and beaches, and the U.S. National Park Service has similarly closed the gates to some iconic destinations. Meanwhile, as people visit outdoor areas, nonessential workers are staying home in many states, leading to real or perceived reduced oversight. In Utah, officials patrolling sensitive wildlife management areas have reported a surge in trespassing.

For many shorebirds that rely on people to protect them, this may be a dangerous combination. On the East Coast, threatened Piping Plovers are now only beginning to return to coastal beaches to build nests and lay eggs. For example, Audubon New York would normally be organizing people to place temporary string fences to keep beachgoers out of nesting zones and building predator barriers and sun shelters for plover chicks, says director of conservation Jillian Liner. But April’s planned work is on pause, in compliance with the state’s directive and Audubon's own pandemic-related policies. “If we get the green light in May, that won’t be too late, but we’ve been told this could go on for many weeks,” she says. “We could miss the entire breeding season.” 

Faced with excessive disturbance and no protection by people still using the beach, Liner worries that nesting plover pairs might simply abandon the area. “If this impacts the breeding season, you’ll definitely see less birds next year,” she says.  

Programs that safeguard other endangered birds are also on hold. In California, the Monterey-based Ventana Wildlife Society works to that provide ranchers with copper ammunition every spring to protect California Condors. This offers a less toxic alternative to the lead bullets and buckshot that ranchers generally use to shoot what they consider pests, especially ground squirrels and coyotes. Because condors eat the carcasses, lead poisoning poses a serious threat to the giant birds, which almost vanished in the 1980s. 

Copper bullets are hard to come by at most gun shops (which are anyway now closed in the state). “Our program redirects what limited supply there is to these ranchers,” says Ventana Wildlife Society executive director Kelly Sorenson. But because state law requires face-to-face personal transactions for ammunition, the program, running since 2012, has been shelved for now. The timing couldn’t be worse, Sorenson says—spring is a key time for managing ground squirrels on these ranches. In addition, his organization will pause a program in which staff drive to remote areas and leave stillborn calves for the condors to divert their attention from potentially lead-tainted carrion. 

Back on southen California beaches, Hartley and her colleagues are now encouraging concerned locals who routinely walk the beach for exercise—still an allowed activity—to watch for trespassers into the plovers’ nesting area. While Hartley notified the local police of the March incident, she says they replied back that their officers, understandably saturated with coronavirus-related demands, are unable to help patrol the area. 

Liner is eager for the day that officials give the all-clear to go back to work but supports any measures necessary to end the pandemic. “It’s absolutely more important that people are safe,” she says.