Friday, October 08, 2010

Damn This World Is Complicated Part I: Snowy Plovers and the Wrack

 The world continues to amaze me and to remind me how little I know.  We went for a walk at Dockweiler Beach yesterday, coordinated by the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors and the LA Audubon Society,  to see Snowy Plovers.  We did see them, but they were too far away and moved too much to get any good pictures.  That's one in the poster to the right. (I made this one bigger so you can double click to enlarge it.) But in addition to the Snowy Plovers we found out about other critters the plovers depend on. 

I'm sure this post goes into far more detail than any of you intended to read.  But I think if you bear with me, you'll see my point.  The more you know about something, the less you know.  I experience that a lot.

So, even though you know more than you did, you realize you know less because the universe of what there is to know has grown faster than the universe of what you know.  And it's even worse for people who know things that are patently wrong. 

I think this is something we should all keep in mind as we try to understand the diverse issues in our life - what causes the common cold, whether the bailout helped and what would have happened without it, the degree to which global warming is caused by humans and whether it can be changed.

It seems that many people want these issues simplified into whether they "support my ideology or not."  It's important to let go of our ideologies and be willing to accept the uncertainty that the complication of the world requires.  Be willing to accept findings that contradict what we want to be true.

Looking just at the ecology of the threatened Snowy Plover - a relatively simple and concrete phenomenon - reminds us of the incredible complexity of the issues our media and politicians manage to boil down into sound bytes.


The Snowy Plover


I took no pictures of the birds.  There were only about 20 birds on the stretch of beach we were at.  But considering the following from Coal Oil Point Reserve, that's a lot.

"The Pacific Coast population of the Western Snowy Plover was listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act in 1993 because of declining populations. The stretch of beach between Isla Vista and Ellwood (including Sands Beach) was designated "Critical Habitat" in December of 1999; at the time of the critical habitat designaton, the population in the entire Pacific Coast of the United States was estimated at less than 1500 individuals. "
The quote above is from a stretch of beach near Santa Barbara.  We were about 120 miles south at the west end of the Los Angeles International airport. 


Our guide at the wrack line
Things get complicated here because the snowy plover lives on the dry part of the beach and eats insects that live in the kelp that is washed on the shore.  One of the words I learned yesterday was "the wrack line."  This is not a place to torture birds.  Rather it is the edge of high tide where the seaweed and other debris sits on the beach after high tide.


 The best short description of the wrack line I found was an infrequently updated blog called The Wrackline:
The wrack line is the area of the shore between the low and high tides. The flotsam and jetsam of the sea come to rest along the wrack line. Who doesn't like to wander along that zone just for the discovery? Wander the wrack line of the modern world and see what washes up.
Local wrack line full of trash


Barbara Hurd wrote a book called Walking the Wrack Line and below you can hear her read on NPR a brief section about driftwood on some Alaskan beach.  

AA

Kelp pile
See what I mean about complications? I grew up at the beach and I'd never heard of the wrack line, but it plays an important part in the life of the snowy plover. This plover lives on the critters that live on the kelp on the wrack line. They nest further up on the dry sand of the beach.

And that's why they are so threatened on the Pacific Coast. People like beaches and coastal habitat has been degraded by humans.  From a report by Westminster College (Salt Lake City) ecology student Egan A. Rowe:
On U.S. coasts this habitat degradation is caused primarily by expanding beach front development. Recreation has also been responsible for a significant decline in the size of breeding populations. The use of beach grass (Ammophila arenaria) to stabilize dunes along the Pacific Coast has also greatly affected these birds. This stabilization has reduced the extent of open nesting habitat. Other impacts include frequent mechanical raking of beaches to remove garbage, seaweed, and other debris which has made beaches in southern California unsuitable for nesting and harms food resources for the snowy plover. These and other human pressures have caused this species to migrate inland to available breeding habitats such as the Great Salt Lake playa margins.
Rowe tells us further:
[T]he population breeding along the Pacific Coast of the U.S. and Baja California is listed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife as a Threatened species. In Washington and Alabama it has been designated an Endangered species by those states.  These designations have given rise to many measures being taken to protect this animal's habitat.  Some states have posted informative signs and roped of areas to reduce disturbance of nesting birds.  In some states such as Oregon, beaches have been closed.  These and other techniques have lead to improved hatching success.  However, there is still research being done to improve snowy plover nesting and hatching success.  For instance, experiments with solar powered electric fences, chick shelters, and artificially elevated nesting substrates at the Great Salt Plain, Oklahoma, show promise for increasing reproductive success.  All measures to protect snowy plovers have been too recent to determine their effect on population size.  [This and the other reports on different parts of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem appear to be from 1999.
What's happening eleven years later?  Well, ten years later, this report from the Daily Sound about snowy plovers at a beach in Goleta near Santa Barbara suggests real conflicts of will:
The drama over the plover stretches back more than three years. As part of a complex land swap agreement to preserve Ellwood Mesa from development, the California Coastal Commission granted a coastal development permit in 2005, that required Goleta to take steps to protect the plover habitat. The plover is listed as threatened with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
 Among the requirements were for city to prohibit dogs and horses in some key areas and install permanent signage.
 Singer said that Goleta has taken some steps to protect the plovers, but high costs, opposition from dog owners, and questions about whether plover nesting actually exists along the roughly two-mile stretch of beach within Goleta’s jurisdiction, have slowed the city down.
“We don’t have snowy plovers nesting on our beaches,” he said. “Nesting doesn’t currently exist. Maybe that’s because we have dogs running around. I don’t  know. We don’t exactly have perfect conditions.”
 But the lack of an official habitat management plan is why activists suspect that plovers aren’t obviously nesting in the area. They point to the success of UCSB’s Coal Oil Point Reserve nearby as testimony that a program can work.
 At Coal Oil Point, docents monitor the plover habitat area year-round and the program has become a statewide model for plover preservation and habitat restoration.

Coal Oil Point Reserve was the place in the first quote of this post. 

The walk we went on yesterday is part of the conservation efforts - this being educational part of the efforts- of the Los Angeles Audubon Society  and the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors.

An LA Times article tells more about these efforts:
The birds are federally listed as a threatened species, which means they are at risk of becoming endangered.

The enclosure just north of Imperial Highway is the result of a three-year effort by federal and county officials and the Los Angeles Audubon Society. The Fish and Wildlife Service is committed to spending up to $14,000 on the project, officials said. Passersby may now spot an orange mesh fence surrounding the enclosure, with one side open to the ocean. What they may not see, however, are the Western snowy plovers.

"You can look right at them and think you're looking at sand," said David De Lange, president of the Los Angeles Audubon Society, an experienced bird watcher.

Plovers nest in the dunes by scratching an indentation in the sand, sometimes under a piece of debris, and lay their sand-colored eggs inside. But the camouflage may also make them vulnerable to unwary foot traffic.

"The chicks look like little cotton balls on sticks. They are cute," Hendron said. "But it's very easy to miss them, and if people even let their dogs off the leash, the dogs can step on the eggs. They can kill a chick."

That could be one reason the birds do not feel safe enough to nest at the Dockweiler site. The plovers will roost or hang out, but once the instinct to lay eggs kicks in, they tend to leave for safer areas, bird watchers say.

This has become a problem across Los Angeles County, De Lange said, noting that there has not been a confirmed Western snowy plover nesting on a county beach since 1949. Scientists hope that fencing off the area will discourage people from disturbing the birds, allowing them to relax enough to build nests. Experts have tried this approach at other sites in California, including Huntington Beach, with positive results, Hendron said. .  .

Figures show local conservation efforts may be working. The U.S. population of the species in 1993, when it was first listed as threatened, numbered fewer than 1,400. By 2005, the official head count had grown to 2,300.

I told you this would get complicated and offer my admiration to those of you who made it this far.  I want to do one or two more posts covering beach jumpers and kelp flies that live in the kelp on the wrack line and are major dining delicacies of the snowy plover.  And I also have pictures of the trash that came to rest on the wrack line.

But the point of all this is not simply that snowy plovers are threatened and minor human adjustments seem like they could help a lot.  Though that is important.  The point of this and the following posts on the topic is to remind people that this tiny little issue is vastly complicated so that we all remember the other issues our states and countries are facing are also that complicated and more so.

But just as I have gained a huge amount of knowledge in two days about this (and a growing awareness of how much else there is to know) I think the other issues we face are not impossible to grasp - at least at the level necessary to make reasonable decisions to resolve them.

We do have to stop spending our time on trivia and a little more time on getting more depth than the media offer us on Iran, immigration, the backgrounds of political candidates, etc.

And we have to drop our ideological "us" v. "them" mentality and work together to make this a better world for humans and all the other living things we share it with.

[UPDATE:  Part II: Beach Hoppers, Part III:  Kelp Flies

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