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Plover Chick at Nehalem!

Last week a historic event occurred at Nehalem Bay State Park. The first plover chick in over 30 years hatched on our beach!

Small, fragile, and fluffy. Like one of these guys

 

This is the third year snowy plovers have tried nesting at Nehalem since recovery efforts began at this site in 2012, and all previous nesting attempts failed. I had thought this nest – a two-egg scrape tended by two adults – was also lost last Thursday, when I found it empty and unkempt, with nothing but the tiniest shell fragment in the bowl. Worse, I found a dead chick a few feet from the nest with no indications of how it got there.

After I had packed up all my gear, I resumed searching for any signs of plovers. That’s when I found the funny tracks – two sets, adjacent, and with the distinct pattern of plovers. They were slightly different sizes, and I dared to hope that maybe one chicks survived.

These seemed to be different sizes. I was suspicious. And hopeful.

Friday morning I went back out to the beach just to see what I could find, and boy, I am glad I did! A lone male was sitting oddly on the sand. Literally on the sand – his belly was just barely touching the ground rather than fully pressed into the sand like a plover that is loafing (that’s a bird-specific scientific term for “relaxing”). He didn’t appear alarmed, either. As a biologist, all his behavior struck me as “hinky”. I set up my spotting scope at the high tide line about 75 feet away, far enough that he wasn’t making any movements that indicated he was upset that I was there.

Brooding male western snowy plover. He is just left of that upright stick in the center of the photo.

The longer I watched through the round lens of the scope the more suspicious I became. Then a crow flew overhead! The male ran, and out from under him tumbled the tiniest little fluff ball. The chick hunkered down and froze, blending into the sand immediately.

I watched through the screen on my phone as I held it precariously against the spotting scope lens.  This was some real “Wild America” playing out before my eyes.  The dad perched on a piece of driftwood, watching as the crow flew off. He bobbed his head, made a little chirp noise, and his chick came running and snuggled under his feathers. Now it was just a puffy daddy plover with two little chick legs sticking out from his breast.

Well, awesome! What now, wildlife biologist?

Well, I’ll tell you!

We aren’t done yet! Western snowy plover chicks are very small and fragile, about the size of your thumb when they first hatch. This little chick now faces a whole new set of challenges compared to when it was an egg, and it takes about a month for the chick to go from fluff ball to fully feathered and flying juvenile plover. During that time, many sorts of threats loom over it:

  • Trampling by beach visitors that don’t know it is there, by exuberant dogs gallivanting through the sand, by horses, even by deer and elk.
  • Predation from crows, coyotes, and gulls – any disturbance that makes the chick exposed to these predators could spell the end!
  • Separation from its dad, which increases chances a predator will notice it
  • Weather – the chick needs to stay with dad to keep it at the right temperature. He shades his chick when too hot, and cuddles it under his feathers when too cold.

How you can help – become a Plover Protector

Western snowy plovers are doing well because the public is helping them out – a plover protector is anyone that wants to see these birds back on Oregon beaches. Small actions you take can have huge impacts! To be a plover protector all you need to do is right here:

  • Abide by recreation restrictions in the designated plover areas . This means no dogs. Your pup may mean no harm but could easily squish a hiding chick. It also means no bicycles, kite-like objects, or other vehicles. These frighten the dad and his chick and can separate them.
  • Watch for chicks on the beach, and if you see any snowy plovers (in or out of the designated areas) give them a wide berth.
  • Watch your step! Plover chicks freeze and rely on camouflage to hide from danger. They also like to hide in small depressions,  like footprints, so forging your own path in the sand instead of staying in tracks left before you is better to avoid trampling chicks.
  • If you spot any snowy plovers, report them via e-Bird or e-mail me at vanessa.blackstone@oregon.gov with the location, date, number of plovers, any bands if you see them, and either a photo or the key marks that tell you they were western snowy plovers.

Plover Patrol Workshop

Do you spend a lot of time on the beach and want to know more about western snowy plovers? Join Oregon Parks and Recreation Department’s wildlife biologist Vanessa Blackstone for an in-depth workshop on the western snowy plover. Members of Coastwatch, SOLVE, and folks that just like walking the beach can all learn what to look to aid this tiny shorebird when out on our wild Oregon Coast. The first half of the workshop is all about the bird! The second half (after lunch) focuses on how to survey for plovers, and is required for OPRD’s Plover Patrol volunteers.

When: Sunday, April 24 10 am – 2pm
Where: Nehalem Meeting Hall, Nehalem Bay State Park

To register: contact Vanessa.Blackstone@oregon.gov

2016ShorebirdConservationAreas

There are 16 Snowy Plover Management Areas in Oregon

Topics Covered

First Half: A Tale of Plovers 10-noon:

  • Western snowy plover identification and life history
  • Threats and protection of the plover
  • Management history and what is happening now

Noon: Lunch break! Get to know your fellow plover lovers. Light refreshments provided.

Second Half: Surveying for Plovers 12:40 – 2 pm:

  • Survey Protocol
  • “Mock” survey to practice! Prizes for those that get it right!
  • Q and A on anything plover

Plover Patrol 2016

Do you love plovers?

Would you like to be on the team that spots these birds as they reclaim their historic nesting grounds?

Oregon Parks and Recreation (OPRD) is looking for volunteers to survey for western snowy plover, a threatened shorebird, at four of our State Parks in 2016!

We are very excited that this threatened shorebird is making a comeback, and we need help to track where they are interested in nesting. Last year a pair nested at Nehalem Bay for the first time in 30 years. To help plovers make this comeback, OPRD has four beaches set aside for them where we ask the public to let them nest in peace.

But! We need to know if the plovers are there!

IMG_5963

Male Western Snowy Plover patrols Nehalem beach while his mate sat on their nest.

Time commitment is at least 1 survey per month, and each survey usually takes 2-3 hours.  Training is provided on survey protocol and identification. Surveys consist of walking on the beach on a (relatively) nice day, scanning for signs of plovers! Not too shabby. Surveys involve walking the beach and scanning for signs of western snowy plover, documenting potential predators and food sources, and noting recreation uses. Volunteers should be comfortable walking a few miles on the beach in wind and sun or light drizzle. In addition, a 4-hour training is required so that you can be listed as a sub-permittee on OPRD’s Recovery Permit. Don’t worry if that’s confusing – it will be explained during the training.

If you would like to attend a training, even if you don’t want to be a volunteer, please participate in our Doodle Poll: http://doodle.com/poll/a42fhzhsuykuqh5c. This helps us select the date(s) that work for the most people.

To apply to volunteer, contact vanessa.blackstone@oregon.gov.

 

 

Beach Recreation Restrictions Lifted at Nehalem

Beach recreation restrictions on the spit south of Nehalem Bay State Park are being lifted for the remainder of the year. The restrictions went into place this April after a pair of western snowy plovers were found nesting on the spit and were scheduled until September 15, when the breeding period ends.

Lifting the restrictions means beachgoers may recreate in the dry sand, along with their leashed dogs. Vehicle use remains restricted, including bicycles. The park will continue presenting interpretive programs about shorebirds through the summer.

We have been surveying for the birds since first spotting them on the spit this past March, and at this point it is unlikely a pair would start a new nest. There just isn’t time for the parents to incubate eggs and raise young before winter. Even though their nest attempt wasn’t successful, it shows that we are on the right track for shorebird recovery at Nehalem. I would like to thank all our visitors for their compliance and understanding over the past few months. Restrictions will go back in place March 15, 2016, and OPRD will resume surveys for nesting shorebirds. Click here for more information on the HCP (Habitat Conservation Plan) and beach restrictions, and plover recovery.

Peeking at Plovers

It’s been a long, busy summer, and I’ve been out on the Spit many times since discovering our little plovers’ nest. Back on April 9th, I was out with USFWS biologist William Ritchie to “float” the eggs – floating is exactly that. You put the eggs in a jar of room temperature water and see where they float. Based on where they are in the water (bottom = freshly laid, surface = close to hatching), biologists can estimate how old the eggs are and when they will hatch! It isn’t the most precise effort, but it did give us an idea of when to expect the eggs might release the little balls of fluff that are plover chicks.

It also isn’t the easiest thing to do. The adults are not happy about people being close to them, and run away to safety. And you can’t just walk up to a nest, since crows and ravens (corvids) are smart and curious enough to follow a direct trail… or just watch you if they happen to be around. AND you can’t actually SEE the nest because it is so camouflaged, so there is some trial and error in approaching it! We use similar techniques that the corvids use, and follow plover tracks.

Western snowy plover tracks in the sand. MotoX phone for scale.

Western snowy plover tracks in the sand. MotoX phone for scale.

 

So, Will and I carefully checked around to make sure no corvids were hanging out, then carefully crept roundabout to the general area of the nest, then even more carefully floated the eggs. No pictures of that, we wanted to get the work done and get out as quickly as possible. It was a nice day and not too cold, but every moment the parents are away from the nest increases the chances of failure. Will determined the eggs were likely to hatch the last week of April, and then we carefully packed up equipment and snuck away, using a small broom to brush our tracks out of the sand to leave less evidence for curious corvids.

I had my date, and set the calendar! As the weeks went by, ODFW and I took turns checking on the nest, usually seeing the female only through spotting scopes to avoid disturbing her. Our beach rangers let the public know what all the signs were for, and beach visitors were (mostly) respectful of these birds’ privacy, for which I am very thankful.

 

What I saw on most nest checks - through the lens of a spotting scope.

What I saw on most nest checks – through the lens of a spotting scope.

Then I got the email from ODFW. Their Friday nest check had the female off the nest, foraging, and the male wasn’t sitting in her place. That is unusual. Winds were high, though, and ODFW didn’t linger on the beach. All weekend I worried over our little plovers, wondering if A/W/A:V and his unbanded female had lost their nest. I went out on the following Monday to check the nest – to confirm or deny that it was still there.

Nope.

Nothing.

The beach had changed.

What had been a relatively flat sandy spot was now an uphill slope, with no sign of eggs or nest (or my wildlife camera). To say I was sad is an understatement, but at the same time this is what happens out on our Oregon Coast. It is a rough, rugged place, and early nests are often lost to the weather. Since my wildlife camera vanished as well we don’t know exactly what happened to the nest. Did some people walk by on a windy day, bumping the female off the nest, and by the time she came back the sand had blown over her eggs? Was it a crow, or the resident beach coyotes? Was it simply such a windy gust that no matter how tight she sat she couldn’t keep the sand off her precious eggs? I don’t know, and never will (unless that camera washes up somewhere).

Taken April 9, the nest was in between the long, flat-topped board on the left and the tuft of beach grass.

Taken April 9, the nest was in between the long, flat-topped board on the left and the tuft of beach grass.

 

Taken April 23, that long flat log is in the bottom of the photo.

Taken April 23, at a slightly different angle. That same long flat board is in the bottom and the beach grass is at the top.

We continued to survey the Spit for any sign of plovers; they usually nest again after losing a nest, and will keep trying until it gets too late in the breeding period. After late July there just isn’t enough time for the birds to incubate, hatch, and raise their young to fledging before winter. I found some tracks shortly after the nest was lost, but then even those too disappeared.

And the beach continued to change. The southern half of the spit that had been such nice habitat early in the season kept getting more sloped as the winds sculpted the sand around driftwood. The northern half started getting more ideal, with flat expanses and bits of shell. Even though this nest attempt failed, it shows us that Nehalem is indeed attractive to western snowy plover and the HCP plans were not in vain. OPRD and USFWS have opted to lift recreation restrictions for the remainder of the breeding period, since there have been no sign of plovers all throughout May and June.

As for me, I’m planning some habitat restoration to get that beach a little wider, to give the birds a bit more room away from the wind, the predators, and the people. Maybe next year A/W/A:V will come back and try again. Or maybe one of his cousins. Either way, I’ll be waiting with a spotting scope to help them as best I can.

 

WSP two-egg nest

Nehalem has some new residents

“I have a nest! I have a nest! I can’t believe I have a NEST!”

Those were my words at 1:30 pm Friday, April 3.

I was out on the beach at Nehalem Spit, looking for western snowy plovers. And boy, I found them!

Unbanded plover watching over its nest at Nehalem Bay State Park

Unbanded plover watching over her nest at Nehalem Bay State Park

See, March 15 – July 15 is the “detection period” for our north coast Shorebird Conservation Areas, and our dedicated Plover Patrol volunteers go out bimonthly to scan the beach for this tiny dune ghost of a shorebird. On March 26 our Patrol spied 3 snowy plovers, all banded: male A/W/A:V, female O/G:V, and O/Y:V. The V stands for the violet leg band on the right leg, and indicates these birds were hatched on the southern Oregon coast last year. These same birds had been spotted by birders loafing on the spit throughout the winter (check eBird!). But when I got the message that fateful Thursday I was excited! These birds were still on the spit, and the breeding period was at hand!

Cut scene to Friday April 3! I was on site meeting with Dan Elbert of USFWS and Herman Biederbeck of ODFW to strategize monitoring the birds, with intentions to head out and check on the birds. We didn’t really expect to find nesting; the earliest snowy plovers have nested in Oregon was April 17, and that was over two weeks away. The weather did not cooperate though – it was raining. It is so harsh out there for plovers that looking for them in the rain isn’t good for them, even if you can spot them hunkered down, hiding from the inclement weather. My wildlife biologist compatriots left the park, and I stayed around to discuss events with park staff. And then… the weather cleared! Sunny and beautiful and the perfect time to go out on the beach!

Nehalem Spit after the storm

Nehalem Spit after the storm

 

I didn’t really expect to find nesting – or even plovers! I honestly figured they would move on, head back down south, and that we wouldn’t get them to stay without some habitat restoration efforts first. The last time I was out on the Spit driftwood lay so think that you could scarcely put your foot down on dry sand. Near the jetty it was how I remembered –  driftwood packed tight like sardines in a tin. But the further north I went the more it opened up, and the beach was lovely. Dry, flat sand with bits of detritus scattered about, some logs to hide behind, and the occasional shell for camouflage. Maybe plovers were still here. I paused to take some photos – because you never know when you’ll need a good photo of the beach – and a small white thing ran and then halted at the edge of my vision.

Uh oh.

I switched to my binoculars. Plover. She bobbed up and down. My heart rate increased. She ran a bit further and bobbed again.

Uh oh!

That is a sign the bird is uncomfortable! Uncomfortable means nesty!  OMG!! I backpedaled away from the plover and bee-lined for the wet sand, spotting scope whacking my shoulder and bins bouncing! At this distance the plover was just a little white speck, easily missed a midst the driftwood and crab shells. She scurried across the sand and sat funny.

I had that spotting scope up faster than you can say “Big Year Birding.”

A tiny little plover, sitting in the sand. She picked up a little piece of something or other and put it down again. The plover version of knitting?

She stood up, turned around, poofed out her belly feathers like a dancer spreading her skirts and nestled back down again.

 

Western snowy plover on nest at Nehalem

Western snowy plover on nest at Nehalem

 

It’s been over 30 years since plovers nested at Nehalem Spit. Welcome back, little birds! Make your nests, sit tight on those eggs, and raise some little cotton ball babies! I’m honored to be the first to see it, and hope that many more to come will see the dune ghosts dart across the beach.

 

LaPine State Park – home to frogs and toads

If you love amphibians and missed the breeding season on the west side of the state, take a trek over the Cascades and you’ll find more breeding! With higher elevation and different rain patterns, the amphibians on the east side breed much later (in actual Spring!) than their west side counter parts that already did their thing last February.

The Oregon spotted frog (Rana pretiosa)  is a mostly aquatic species that used to occupy the Willamette Valley and the Cascades. In 1993, USFWS designated it a threatened species, but did not list it due to other higher priority species needs taking precedence (down side of being a wildlife biologist: prioritizing species’ lives). Last August, USFWS proposed to list the Oregon spotted frog as threatened.  So, USFWS is gathering more data about them, and invited OPRD to survey a known breeding site along the Deschutes River at La Pine State Park. USFWS wants us to go look for awesome amphibians to help the species? Absolutely!

So last week I drove over to Bend and met up with Greg Cianella, our Natural Resource Specialist for the Eastern Region. He had arranged everything – kayaks, data sheets, GPS and maps – so all I had to do was get in the boat and start paddling.

Paddling the Deschutes River - I love my job

Paddling the Deschutes River – I love my job

 

In contrast to our other breeding frogs, Oregon spotted frogs breed in very shallow water – preferring it less than a foot deep.  They like it still, shallow, and what a lot of us people consider “icky”.  Breeding areas are often devoid of emergent vegetation where the sun can warm the water – and the eggs – quickly. The breeding season is very short, only about four weeks long. That means when it’s time to survey you get out there and do it!

Oregon spotted frogs prefer to breed in shallow water, like this perched spring.

Oregon spotted frogs prefer to breed in shallow water, like this perched spring.

 

They lay their eggs as large masses that float on the surface when fresh. The masses are about the size of an orange, and as they mature the mass gets more “fluffy” and swells in size.

 

Oregon spotted frog egg masses posing with a kayak paddle

Oregon spotted frog egg masses posing with a kayak paddle

Oregon spotted frog egg mass that sunk to the bottom. My theory: the algae and sediment collected around the eggs made the mass heavy enough to sink!

Oregon spotted frog egg mass that sunk to the bottom. My theory: the algae and sediment collected around the eggs made the mass heavy enough to sink!

 

While we were trying to get a nice shot, maneuvering kayaks around, Greg noticed something different laying on the bottom of the slough. We did some more maneuvering – the wind was determined to move us where we didn’t want to go – and managed to get a good look at the stuff. Long strings! Everywhere. Like really long shoe laces crisscrossing the muddy substrate. Yet MORE maneuvering, and I managed to carefully lift the mystery shoelaces up to see them. The sediment dusted off and revealed a beautiful string of delicate eggs.

Western toad eggs! Don't try this at home, kids.

Western toad eggs! Don’t try this at home, kids.

All told, we found 30 spotted frog egg masses, the toad eggs, quite a few bufflehead, a slough of mallards, and sunshine on the water.

It was a good day to be a wildlife biologist!

 

Plover Patrol Flocking up for 2014

Hello Oregonians! We’re looking to start up our Plover Patrol again to hunt for western snowy plover at three of our north coast parks. For more details and to apply, go to our Volunteer Posting.

 

Plover Patrol is Flocking Up!

Plover Patrol is Flocking Up!

Brian Booth State Park – Amphibian Training Day!

It was a sunny day last Wednesday when our North Coast Steward and I took the NCC Silver 1 AmeriCorps team out for some training in wildlife surveys and marsh walking. Silver 1 is serving with Oregon State Parks on the central and north coasts for 10 weeks this winter. They are helping OPRD staff implement much needed restoration and research projects throughout our parks, focusing on the Beaver Creek State Natural Area. The team will survey areas of Beaver Marsh this late winter to count amphibian egg masses, which sounds pretty dull! But mincing around through a calm, cool marsh in highly stylish waders, surrounded by amazing birds, and looking through the water for egg mass treasures is a lot more fun than you might think!

Can you spot the red-legged frog egg mass

Can you spot the red-legged frog egg mass?

They will find egg masses and document some habitat features in the area, like water depth and vegetation. OPRD (me) will then be able to compare to last year, and do it again next year, and as the years go by we will have an idea about what the amphibian population is up to in the marsh. Amphibians are often one of the first groups of species to respond to changes in the ecosystem, which makes them excellent indicators of ecosystem health.

Sometimes the water levels drop after frogs lay their eggs. When this happens the egg masses can be left high and dry - winter and spring rains are good for amphibian breeding!

Sometimes the water levels drop after frogs lay their eggs. When this happens the egg masses can be left high and dry – winter and spring rains are good for amphibian breeding!

We can already see a difference from last year – it seems that spring came early! There were already a lot of egg masses in the marsh, when last year about this same time there were only a handful. For OPRD this is important information so that we can plan restoration projects during times of the year that will have the least negative impact on our natural resources, like breeding amphibians! For the Americorps team, who works on lots of trail building and community projects, this is a unique opportunity to experience a completely different set of work challenges. Maybe we’ll make a wildlife biologist out of one of them!

The team learns how to maneuver a marsh and not fall in.

The team learns how to maneuver a marsh and not fall in.

Birding Point Counts – Day in the Life of a Wildlife Biologist

To work with wildlife you bend your schedule to fit whatever the critters require. So when you’re working with land birds, that means you get up before dawn, go to your site, and be in place before the birds really get going. The height of bird song, when everything is singing and you can hardly hear yourself think, is called the “Dawn Chorus”  and starts right about sunrise. Some species start singing earlier – American robin, pacific wren, Swainson’s thrush – but to really get the prime diversity you want to be listening at dawn and for an hour or two afterwards.

So I was up before dawn, at one OPRD’s properties in the central Willamette Valley. The property has no facilities other than some old road beds and wildlife trails that wind between agriculture fields, through riparian gallery forest, past a meadow, and terminate at a large pond with an island in the middle. There’s also wetlands, a slough, and two smaller ponds full of carp.

Here is the big pond, with part of the island on the right. The up side to early mornings is that you get to see lovely views like this, a perk of the job.

Big pond at Bower's Rock

Big pond

The gallery forest is alive with birds; right now there are adults singing and calling to each other, hunting down prey, and delivering it to their fledglings that are squealing for food at all hours. Once you start listening to bird calls you’ll start to hear the fledglings. They have this insistent “eee eee eeee!” that is new to the forest in late May and common place by the end of June.

BR forest path

Old road through gallery forest

I set up a point count on this old road access, with full forest on one side and a small pond on the other. A point count is a spot where you stand for 10 minutes, listening and watching and recording all the birds around you. I use fixed-distance point counts so that our data can join Klamath Bird Observatory’s database, and we can calculate density and abundance. With data like that, you can survey a site over multiple years and see how the bird populations are changing. Determining just how many song sparrows are singing all around you can be an intense process when there are 12 other species all calling at the same time!

What is neat at this point station is this old snag:

Snags are so important to wildlife!

Snags are so important to wildlife!

It is home to a group of acorn woodpeckers! The whole time I stood there the woodpeckers were coming and going, feeding their young. Acorn woodpeckers are best known for their clown-like facial feathers and for shoving hundreds of acorns into trees (or utility poles) to feed on over the winter. They are also unique in their flocking. Most woodpeckers are in pairs for the breeding season, raising only their young. But acorn woodpeckers are very social, and multiple females will lay eggs in the same nest cavity, taking turns incubating and feeding. This makes for a very loud group effort!

All in all, I documented 38 bird species after 5 points and walking between them, including a surprise – common poorwill. That is a rare bird for the Willamette Valley, and I doubted myself when I heard it calling. But, there’s not much that sounds like a poorwill, and I checked the call in the field with my Sibley app (woo smart phones). Yep, common poorwill. I’ll be listening for him next time I visit to see if he was resident or a stray.

I also had another uncommon resident – black phoebe! This was the second time I saw this fellow, so he is a resident. I’ve not observed a pair, so he might be an early range expander thanks to climate change. Regardless of why he is there, the little phoebe is living in the Valley this summer!

Bird List on June 12, 2013

  • Green heron
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • Osprey (pair with young)
  • California quail
  • Killdeer
  • Mourning dove
  • Eurasian collared-dove
  • Common poorwill
  • Rufous hummingbird
  • Belted kingfisher
  • Acorn woodpecker
  • Hairy woodpecker
  • Northern flicker
  • Western wood-peewee
  • Black phoebe
  • Western scrub-jay
  • American crow
  • Tree swallow
  • Barn swallow
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Bushtit
  • Brown creeper
  • Bewick’s wren
  • Pacific wren
  • American robin
  • Swainson’s thrush
  • European starling
  • Cedar waxwing
  • Yellow warbler
  • Common yellothroat
  • Wilson’s warbler
  • Black-headed grosbeak
  • Spotted towhee
  • Song sparrow
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Brown-headed cowbird
  • Red-winged blackbird
  • American goldfinch

And after that lovely morning, I get to go back to the office and do some paperwork. Yay!