Natural history is being made on Pescadero State Beach, with the approach of the day when two snowy plover chicks hatched there will take flight — for the first time in 32 years.
It is the first sighting on record of the delicate little beige birds with white accents since June 18, 1980.
That day, Father’s Day, is an appropriate one for the little birds, who typically are tended by the father birds in their first helpless days.
In mid-July, the two tiny birds will “fledge,” or have the ability to fly. Plover eggs, which range from the diameter of a nickel to the diameter of a quarter, are laid in tiny indentations in oceanside sand, created by the male birds as part of attracting a mate, said California State Parks Ranger Nelle Lyons.
Both male and female plovers take turns sitting on the nest keeping eggs warm; the females during the day and the males at night, Lyons said. It is estimated that the chicks hatched in mid-June, she said. After they hatch, the female leaves the area and the male sits on the nest to protect the helpless chicks until they can care for themselves.
Should predators approach, the papa birds engage in ruses to deflect attacks that are “amazing to watch,” said Lyons. They enact what she called “distraction displays,” acting injured and fluttering away from the vulnerable nest. They will then soar to safety when the predator is far enough away, so as not to lead the threat near their babies. “They do not return right to the nests,” said Lyons.
The latest spotting of snowy plover chicks in Pescadero took place when Sequoia Audubon Society member Kathy Albert was strolling the beach with fellow birder Garth Harwood and spotted an adult plover with three chicks. It was the first such sighting since 1980, according to respected San Mateo County birder Peter J. Metropulos.
When Albert and Harwood reported their sighting to the local birding community, California State Parks Plover Watch volunteers began regularly visiting the beach to observe the chicks’ growth. Volunteers took steps to protect the chicks including installing a fence to protect against human and canine traffic. The three chicks have since decreased to two, and volunteers eagerly watch for the benchmark mid-July event of their flight.
Efforts to continue protection of the little birds include enclosures of nesting areas to exclude predators like ravens, and signage encouraging dog owners to leash their pets, Lyons said.
“We’re having success,” she said. “People are helping by following the rules … People are making the difference.”
The father bird is distinguished by leg bands: a red band over an aqua band on his left leg and a red band over an orange band on his right leg. Hence, he is known as RA:RO, hatched in 2011 on a beach near the Salinas National Wildlife Refuge and seen last fall as far south as McGrath State Beach in Ventura.
Plover Watch monitors first saw him on Pescadero State Beach in May.
Snowy plovers, says California Department of Parks and Recreation publicity, lost ground over time to coastal development, increased human traffic on beaches and more natural predators such as red foxes and ravens. In 1993, the Pacific Coast population of Western Snowy Plovers were listed a threatened species under the Federal Endangered Species Act.
How can you help? Follow posted rules at parks and stay out of protected habitat areas. Dispose properly of food and trash to avoid attracting predators. Participate in citizen science programs and submit observations of wildlife. Become an active State Parks volunteer. Support the San Mateo Coast Natural History Association.
And, go to Pescadero State Beach, raise your binoculars and look for the baby snowy plovers in flight.