• Aquarium Program Aids Endangered Species

    by Peter Mounteer

    Aimee Greenbaum and Monika RohrerSince 2000, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Point Reyes Bird Observatory (now called Point Blue Conservation Science) have been working together to raise and rehabilitate abandoned bird chicks found on Monterey County beaches.

    The two institutions held a release for three rehabilitated Snowy Plover chicks that occurred on August 8 at Moss Landing State Beach. The chicks were among eleven others released this Spring and Summer, with five more chicks in rehabilitation now as the plover mating season draws to a close.

    Snowy Plovers are small, sparrow-sized shorebirds. They can be identified by distinctive dark patches on the sides of their neck which are complemented by their backs, colored a pale tan or brown with a white underbelly. They are quite common on every continent except Asia, Antarctica and Australia. In North America they are commonly seen on the Gulf and Pacific Coasts. In 1993 the latter population was designated as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Reasons for that specification primarily include shrinking habitats due to climate change and human activity.

    It is the endangered status of the Pacific Coast population of Snowy Plovers, the lack of adequate population control programs on the Central Coast and severe population decreases, that lead to the partnership between what is now Point Blue and The Monterey Bay Aquarium over a decade ago.

    Snowy Plovers were once much more populous on the West Coast. According to Carlton Eyster, a biologist with Point Blue, the introduction of the non-native Red Fox in the 1950s and 1960s contributed heavily to drastic population losses among Snowy Plovers by the mid 1980s. The Snowy Plover and its nests are easy prey for terrestrial predators like foxes and raccoons, largely because they nest on the ground.

    Today, the mouths of the Pajaro and Salinas rivers host the two largest populations of plovers. There are a total of about 375 to 380 breeding adult birds of this species on the Monterey Peninsula.

    Wild plover nests are monitored by state park personnel and biologists with Point Blue. If someone finds an abandoned nest with eggs or chicks in it, they will collect the contents of the nest and bring them to the Monterey Bay Aquarium where they conduct on site, behind the scenes rehabilitation.

    According to Aimee Greenebaum, Associate Curator of Aviculture at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the eggs or chicks will be placed into an ICU that is kept at a constant temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Accompanying the chicks will be a feather duster to imitate the feeling of being incubated by its parent. Sometimes an adult Snowy Plover from one of the aquarium’s exhibits, will be introduced to aid brooding. They are fed live insects that are placed close-by, to simulate finding food in the wild. After a few days the chicks are moved to a larger space that is only heated on one side to incrementally adapt them to colder temperatures.

    Finally, they are placed in a large, unheated cage with other birds and hidden food that they must search for in sand, to give the birds a taste of what living in the wild is like. They are then released on local state beaches. The whole rehabilitation process takes roughly 35 days. Similar programs exist with the Piping Plover on the Great Lakes, conducted by the Detroit Zoo, and with Snowy Plovers at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

    The Snowy Plover’s status as endangered species on the Pacific Coast may pose challenges for development on the peninsula, particularly where California American Water and the proposed Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project are concerned. On May 22, 2013 Congressman Sam Farr (D-Carmel) sent a letter to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service asking weather or not a desalination test well could be placed at a site in Marina without disturbing the threatened birds. The site is owned by Cemex, the world’s largest sand and building materials company, and is easily spotted from Highway 1 as a tan building among sand dunes often issuing white smoke from a chimney. As of August 12th, Farr has yet to receive an official reply from USFWS.

    rw0140Another problem with plover conservation arises with the difficult issue of preditation. Plover parents, when threatened will commonly abandon their nest, even if they are incubating eggs, for long periods until they feel safe. This behavior jeopardizes the health and safety of the eggs, which are left unprotected and thus open to predators.

    Eyster stresses that these birds will do everything possible to lure the predator away from their nests, going so far as to imitate having an injury, called the “broken wing display” to distract a given predator away from the nesting site. However, sometimes the plover faces no other choice but to abandon the nest. The only way to for humans curb this behavior is to ensure that plovers do not feel threatened and avoid disturbing their nesting areas.

    Beach goers should be mindful to stay out of fenced off areas and keep their dogs out of such areas as well, as these areas contain, among other things, vulnerable Snowy Plover nests. “Most nesting sites” Eyster says, “Have been appropriately fenced off. We try to identify higher concentration areas and fence them accordingly.” Avoiding a nest that is not within a fenced off can be difficult as nesting sites can often be hard to recognize. Many are just natural or scraped depressions in the ground with the only tell-tale signs being lines of shell fragments, fish bones or pebbles. The eggs are tiny and similar in color to sand, making them a hard find for the untrained eye.

    Mating season in the wild is March through September. These are the months the rehabilitation program is active. Plover females will often take more than one mate and produce multiple broods a year. Each nest will contain anywhere from two to six eggs. Females will leave the nest after a chick has hatched, leaving the males to look after babies, which are unable to fly for several weeks after hatching. The several weeks of incubation and several weeks of subsequent flightlessness are the most vulnerable periods in the lives of plovers on the Central Coast. Once hatched, Snowy Plover chicks can leave the nest after only three hours. They will locate food for themselves and explore the area surrounding their nests but will remain dependent on their remaining male parent for support until they learn how to fly.bird3

    In its 13 year history the Monterey Bay Aquarium has released around one hundred Snowy Plovers into the wild at various points around the Monterey Peninsula and Bay.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on August 15, 2013

    Topics: Green, Peter Mounteer

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