Adorable, But Threatened, Chicks Call Cargill's Old Salt Ponds Home (Pics)


All photos by Jaymi Heimbuch

Friend and fellow photographer Rebecca Jackrel knows the quickest way to my heart -- invite me out into the field with a camera to photograph, well, pretty much any living thing. She invited me along for a trip with Caitlin Robinson-Nilsen of the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory (SFBBO) as she checked on Western Snowy Plover nests for newly hatched chicks to band. The Western Snowy Plover is a threatened species, and a significant number in the bay area nest in what used to be an area owned by Cargill and used for salt making. Check out photos from the morning, including watching a Snowy Plover chick hatch!

Cargill's Old Salt Ponds Are Snowy Plovers' New Home


The salt flats are the remnants of a salt making area once owned by Cargill. The California Department of Fish and Game gained ownership in 2003 and has been working to improve the land through what is one of the largest wetland restoration projects in the history of the San Francisco Bay area.

Eden Landing Ecological Reserve, where we were this weekend, is over 600 acres and the salt flats are ideal for the Western Snowy Plover as it likes to nest in open, sparsely vegetated areas such as dunes along beaches, shorelines, and these flats.

The plovers find a little indention in the earth that can serve as a nest, and they rely on the camouflage of the eggs to look like rocks and protect them from predators. You can see how well they blend in:

Unfortunately, it will take more than great camouflage to help the plovers with their reproductive success and return to healthy population levels.


Protecting Plovers from Predators


The Western Snowy Plover, a subspecies of Snowy Plovers found along the western US and Baja, is listed as threatened by the federal government, and the observatory is working to keep track of local population in the Eden Landing Ecological Reserve.

The birds are having trouble with reproductive success due to a few factors, including predation of the eggs; a loss of habitat from human encroachment and plants, especially the non-native European beachgrass, taking over the open spaces plovers use to nest; and human activity disturbing nesting areas such as off-road vehicles and beach-goers with dogs entering nesting areas. Most of the chicks, if they make it out of the egg, don't make it to adulthood due to predation by a variety of raptors and other predators like pet and feral cats.

So checking the nests and banding chicks is important for keeping tabs on the birds as they grow up and travel.

The SFBBO has a goal of helping boost the population of Snowy Plovers on the salt flats and surrounding areas to 500 breeding pairs, the number needed to be considered strong enough of a recovery for removal from the threatened species list. As part of the research SFBBO does on the predation factor, the organization has remote cameras set up to watch nests from a distance at all hours. This way, they're able to see what animals are breaking or eating eggs.

In 2009, the group came up with a possible solution for helping more chicks make it to maturity. They placed oyster shells in several plots, hoping that the white shells would help the birds better camouflage their eggs and chicks. The oyster shell plots were a big success the first year, however the organization hasn't seen the shells make much of a difference the last two breeding seasons.

The SFBBO is also working to remove posts in the ponds that now serve as perches for raptors, which dine on the chicks, and remove vegetation that reduces the amount of nesting habitat the plovers have available to them.

Banding Snowy Plover Chicks

We were lucky today. At the very first nest, a chick had hatched just a little while earlier.

Caitlin wanted to wait to band it until it had had some time to rest after it's mighty effort of breaking out of its shell. However, we couldn't be gone too long because chicks are ready to up and run within a couple hours of hatching. Caitlin explained that they're much more like ducklings than songbird chicks -- they can follow their parents around and feed themselves right after hatching, rather than needing to stay at the nest and be cared for by a parent until fledging.

We went and checked several other nests, all of which still had their eggs, but none of which were ready to hatch that day.

We returned to the first nest to band the chick, and the second of the three eggs started to move. Caitlin covered up the two eggs while banding the chick so that they would stay warmer. The mother was circling us at a distance of about 30-40 yards, trying her best to lure us away from the nest by pretending to have a broken wing. It's a strategy the adults employ to make them look like a more tempting meal to predators than their offspring.

The chick receives bands on each leg with specific numbers and color pattern associated with that bird. This way, someone identifying the bird later on can know exactly which individual it is and track it back to where it was born, how old it is, and so on.

The bands are sized specifically for snowy plovers. They're born with legs that will stay approximately the same width for their entire lives, so researchers don't have to worry about the birds outgrowing the bands. Each band is slid on and sealed, then receives a wrapping of auto racing stripe tape. The tape retains its color far longer than the band, and this ensures the birds are identifiable years later.

Watching a Snowy Plover Chick Hatch!

After a couple minutes when Caitlin was done, she lifted the cloth and the chick in the second egg was just poking its head out!

It was the first time I'd witnessed a bird hatching -- let alone witness the hatching of a threatened species. I felt extraordinarily lucky. We returned the banded chick to the nest to join its sibling, and left so that the mother could come back and incubate the chicks and one egg that still needed to hatch.


Getting The Snowy Plover Off The Threatened List


The chicks were amazing, but so too is Caitlin and the rest of the crew at SFBBO working so diligently to protect the birds and restore their habitat. The organization was founded in 1981, and in addition to providing significant scientific research for the preservation of bird species and habitats, they also offer fantastic educational opportunities through guided walks and field trips. It is this depth of interaction and education that is at the heart of protecting a threatened species and bringing their numbers back up -- while banding and research by professionals is necessary, so too is getting the public to care about the wildlife in their local area.

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You can also see more photos from the morning on my Flickr stream.

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More on Threatened and Endangered Birds
Public Lands Are Key To Survival of North American Bird Species
One Third of US Birds Endangered, Threatened or In Decline
Threatened Birds Face Off in Song Remix Competition

Tags: Animals | Birds | Conservation | Endangered Species | longreads

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