Western snowy plovers nesting in restored habitat on the beaches of the Mike Thompson Wildlife Area’s South Spit in Loleta. The Bureau of Land Management has been working to encourage nesting on the beach, which has been increasing since 2016. (Courtesy of BLM)
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There are a lot of factors that threaten the habitat of the Western snowy plover — from ravens to invasive beach grass altering their preferred habitats — which has been listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act since 1993.

But for the past two decades, Bureau of Land Management staff in Arcata have been working on restoring the habitat for the tiny, fluffy shorebirds by removing the European beach grass and laying out oyster shells the plovers could use for nesting at the Mike Thompson Wildlife Area’s South Spit.

“Once they re-established nesting here in 2016, the success rate has been about the same,” said Jesse Irwin, a wildlife biologist with the BLM Arcata Field Office who has been central in restoring the habitat. “But there’s been more nests every year. The first year was nine and now we’re up to 32 this year.”

Jesse Irwin, a wildlife biologist with the Bureau of Land Management, explains the increase in snowy plovers nesting in the Mike Thompson Wildlife Area’s South Spit habitat south of Eureka on Thursday. (Sonia Waraich — The Times-Standard)

Snowy plovers prefer wide-open expanses where they can see predators, Irwin said. They don’t build much of a nest, he said, instead opting to scrape out a hole in the sand into which they’ll place some shells or sticks.

One plot of oyster shells in the beach had a 100% nesting success rate, Irwin said. Clam Beach, which the snowy plovers were trying to use to nest before switching to the restored habitat, had a nesting success rate closer to 5%, he said.

“As far as these projects go, this is one of the bigger success stories we’ve had,” said Eric Laughlin, public information officer with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response. “One of the biggest elements of it that’s interesting is that they use oyster shells, which they process and put on the beach, and that keeps the predators away because it camouflages the eggs.”

When a predator approaches, the snowy plover defends its nest by abandoning it since an adult bird is more noticeable to predators than the motionless eggs it lays, according to an information packet put together by Friends of the Dunes. The only way that method works, however, is if the snowy plover is able to see a predator as it approaches, which it can’t do in an area with a lot of beach grass that would impede its view, it states.

It’s not just ravens that threaten the population of the snowy plovers, said Leisyka Parrot, an interpretive specialist with the BLM Arcata Field Office. Dogs and garbage left by humans can also cause problems for the birds, she said, as well as humans going through the nesting area during nesting season, which is from March to mid-September.

“Kites are a big issue,” Parrot said. “They don’t like kites flying over because it looks like a predator.”

The condition of the beaches in Humboldt County has been worsening over the past few years, too, Irwin said.

“So the available nesting habitat has been going down overall,” Irwin said.

Various agencies, particularly BLM and the state Department of Parks and Recreation, have been working together to “make the best habitats we can,” Irwin said.

Sonia Waraich can be reached at 707-441-0506.

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