Threatened bird on the rebound

Score one for the western snowy plover.

The threatened shorebird had a strong year on the Oregon coast, where wildlife managers tallied 315 nests and 173 fledged chicks. The numbers were up slightly from last year, continuing a generally positive trend.

“This was our best nesting season ever in Oregon since we began monitoring in 1990, so we’re feeling really good,” said Cindy Burns, a Siuslaw National Forest wildlife biologist assigned to the Central Coast Ranger District and Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.

“There were some nesting sites that did not do well, but the majority of sites did really well on fledgling chicks.”

Measuring about 6 inches long, the western snowy plover is a brown, black and white shorebird that lays its eggs in open sand. The bird’s Pacific Coast population was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1993.

Since then, protection efforts have helped the plover’s numbers bounce back in many parts of its range, including coastal Oregon. This year’s tally of 290 adult plovers is the highest since monitoring began and includes an estimated 231 breeding birds.

Burns credits the upward trend in large part to measures such as fencing off nesting areas, educating the public and controlling predators such as crows, ravens and, in some areas, red foxes. Mild weather has also played a role.

“It’s probably a combination of all those things together, plus Mother Nature giving the birds a break,” she said.

While the plover population remains fragile, the bird has staged a remarkable comeback in Oregon since the early 1990s.

According to Laura Todd, a field supervisor in the Newport office of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the number of breeding adults plunged from 73 in 1990 to just 35 in 1992.

“We were pretty nervous at the time that it was going to be gone,” she said.

Fast-forward to 2012, and the bird appears well on its way to coming off the threatened list.

“We have to get to 250 breeding birds in Oregon and Washington to consider our population recovered,” Todd said. “So we’re getting close.”

The western snowy plover’s success in Oregon is also helping to prop up shaky populations in California, according to Jim Watkins, the lead biologist in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s plover recovery program.

“Oregon’s been doing a lot of management,” Watkins said, speaking by phone from his office in Arcata, Calif. “Some of the birds that are fledged in Oregon are helping to sustain our population in Northern California, where they’re not doing so well.”

Farther south, in strongholds around Monterey, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, the bird is doing better. Overall, Watkins said, the Pacific Coast population of the western snowy plover has been growing since its original listing and appears to have bounced back from 2006-2007, when the numbers took a severe hit from cold winter temperatures.

“We’ve been building steadily since then,” he said. “The overall population is not quite as large this year as it was last year, but it’s still bigger than it was in 2010.”

Based on a breeding season survey conducted earlier this year, there are now an estimated 1,855 adult plovers up and down the West Coast, down slightly from 1,917 in 2011.

The target for declaring recovery is 3,000 adult plovers.

Contact reporter Bennett Hall at bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9529.

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be contacted at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.


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Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald