Fence erected at Malibu Beach to help birds


Numbers of federally threatened snowy plovers at Malibu Lagoon have increased, and wildlife activists have placed a “symbolic fence” around roosting areas to protect them.

By Jimy Tallal / Special to The Malibu Times

Volunteers from the Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society (SMBAS) and staff from California State Parks recently erected a “symbolic fence” of posts connected by a rope around the current roosting site of 78 federally threatened birds called snowy plovers that were observed at Malibu Beach this year. The groups have been putting the fence up the seasonal enclosure every year since 2008 from spring to fall around in an effort to protect the fragile birds.

Western snowy plovers are small shore birds about six inches tall that roost and nest on scrapes or footprints in the open sand near the mouth of a creek or lagoon. This means they are highly vulnerable to disturbance from beachgoers, lifeguards, maintenance staff, beach vehicles and dogs. In fact, none have actually nested in Los Angeles County since 1949, although they do overwinter here.

The snowy plover count in January 2012 for L.A. County was 326, the highest since a snowy plover monitoring program was launched in 2007. Of that total, the highest increase in the county was at the Malibu Lagoon, where 78 plovers were counted-almost 20% of all the “snowies” in L.A. County. Roosts were also present at Zuma Beach.

Stacey Vigallon, the Los Angeles County Audubon Society’s endangered species coordinator, scouted the Malibu Lagoon site in advance to determine where the plovers were currently roosting.

The fence and signs let beachgoers know these birds are protected, and that staying out of the fenced area will help keep their disturbance to a minimum.

“It’s a symbolic fence because it consists of only a line of fence posts connected by a rope,” Chuck Almdale, field trip coordinator for SMBAS, said. “Although signs are hung at intervals, it is not an impenetrable barrier, but I’d guesstimate that 95 percent of people stay out. The signs ask the public to be more careful while the fence sets aside a small area for the birds to get a bit of shut-eye.”

Almdale said the enclosure was important because the birds are fragile and difficult to see while walking.

“The plovers are so small and cryptically plumaged that people just don’t see them; especially if they’re walking along deep in conversation and unaware of the tiny birds at their feet,” Almdale said. “The ‘snowies’ also look a lot like the far more numerous and definitely not threatened sanderlings-making it less likely that the average person will be concerned about them.”

A report released in 2010 by Ryan Ecological Consulting, a partner of the monitoring program, found that dogs that were not leashed continued to be a problem in snowy plover roosting areas, including in Malibu.

“One reason the snowy plovers may not be using the enclosure at Malibu is because of dog owners who arrive early in the morning before lifeguards and rangers,” the report stated. “We regularly observed dog tracks within the enclosure and on the beach.”

The group plans on letting the temporary “enclosure” stand until October 1. “Snowies” use their roosting areas to sleep, rest, and avoid wind and predators. However, sometimes the birds change the location of their preferred roosting site depending on the tides, the lagoon outlet location and human beach use. Many of these birds have been tagged by authorities for identification purposes, and local studies show that individuals tend to return to the same beach every winter. One bird returned to the same beach for six years.

The entire west coast population of snowy plovers was still only 2,300 in 2011; and three percent of those overwinter in Malibu. The birds were listed as a federally threatened species in 1993 by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), which lists Malibu Beach as one of only five beaches in Los Angeles County that serve as critical habitat. A USFWS Recovery Plan completed in 2007 has a goal of increasing the county breeding population to 500 from a start of only 243.

Los Angeles Audubon Society holds regular training programs for volunteers who wish to join the Snowy Plover Monitoring Program. Trained volunteers help observe birds at locations from Malibu to Long Beach during one of four survey windows throughout the year. Anyone interested in volunteering can contact Stacey Vigallon at 323.481.4037.