Last updated: August 27, 2020
July 2020 - Western snowy plovers are back on Golden Gate National Recreation Area beaches! They weren’t gone for very long. These small, federally threatened shorebirds leave Golden Gate to breed each spring, and return each fall to spend the winter feasting on beach invertebrates. Between the early and late breeders coming and going, June is often the only month plovers are absent. This year, despite some COVID-19 disruptions, the snowy plover monitoring team was mostly able to continue keeping track of the Golden Gate’s plover population. They counted the last overwintering birds on April 29, and the first new arrivals on July 7th. A preliminary look at their data from the last year reveals an overwintering population that was above average at Ocean Beach, and larger than ever at Crissy Field.
After decades as a US Army airfield, a massive, collaborative, restoration effort led to Crissy Field opening as park land in 2001. In 2006, a handful of western snowy plovers took notice and began overwintering among the restored dunes. However, counts remained in the single digits. Monitors would record three to four plovers per winter survey, and occasionally spot eight or nine birds on the beach at one time. In 2018-2019, the team counted a new high of 11 plovers on the beach at once. This past year, that maximum count was up to 12. Average winter counts rose to a new high as well. Monitors recorded about eight plovers per survey, roughly double the 2006-2019 average!
The Ocean Beach plover population is much older, and biologists have monitored it since 1994. Over the last 26 years, they have counted an average of 30 plovers per winter survey. This past season, the monitoring team counted around 49 plovers per survey. In addition, the maximum number of plovers they counted on the beach during a single survey (96) was the second-highest max count on record. It is the sixth winter in a row that counts have been above average on Ocean Beach.
One continuing threat to snowy plovers' recent success is people and unleashed dogs disturbing them inOcean Beach and Crissy Field Wildlife Protection Areas. As in recent years, over 70% of pets on Ocean Beach were off leash during the 2019-2020 survey season. Visitors do a better job of leashing their pets at Crissy Field, where a gate makes the Wildlife Protection Area harder to miss. This helps the plovers rest and conserve energy for their next breeding season.