PESCADERO -- A pair of western snowy plover chicks learned to fly last week at Pescadero State Beach, sending the spirits of local conservationists soaring.
It's the first time any of the endangered birds have fledged there in 32 years, according to state parks officials and local bird watchers, thanks in part to a decade-old policy banning dogs from the beach.
The Pacific coast population of snowy plovers, tiny birds that forage along shorelines, was listed as threatened in 1993 under the Endangered Species Act. Federal, state and local officials, working with conservationists, have since undertaken various measures to boost populations of the 2-ounce birds that typically present gray or brown feathers over a white belly. By 2010 that effort, including the creation of protected habitat areas, helped the total number of snowy plovers climb back to more than 3,600, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
But no plovers had bred in San Mateo County since 2009, and no chicks had hatched at Pescadero State Beach since 1980, said State Parks Ranger Nelle Lyons, until a Sequoia Audubon Society birder spotted three baby plovers July 17 on the picturesque strand. Two of them survived.
"We're just amazed that not only did we have chicks hatch, but we had two fledglings," said Lyons. Young plovers are often scooped by predators such as ravens or foxes before they learn to fly, a process known as fledging.
Volunteers and parks staff have installed a cable fence to create a small sanctuary for the plovers, which nest in the sand and feed along the shoreline. Nesting plovers are easily disturbed by people and dogs.
"A dog, no matter how sweet it is or what kind of leash it's on, wildlife sees that and sees a predator," said Rita Jennings, a California State Parks Plover Watch volunteer.
Parks officials say people can help the birds by following posted rules at parks, staying out of protected habitat and properly disposing of food and trash, which can attract ravens and other predators. Wildlife officials hope to restore plover populations to the point where the birds are taken off the list of threatened species. That process involves several criteria, including keeping the birds at a total population averaging above 3000 between a number of sites in the west coast for 10 years.
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.
Weight: Up to about 2 ounces
Length: About 6 inches
Appearance: White or pale belly with gray or brown upper parts
Conservation status: Threatened
Range along Pacific coast: Washington to Baja California
Sources: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service