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The Southern California Coast Provides Critical Habitat for Imperiled Birds

Updated: May 19, 2019

The sandy shorelines of California are popular places for people to live and vacation. They also provide significant habitat for the life cycles of a variety of bird species, including some endangered and threatened species.

Springtime begins the arrival of many migratory birds to Southern California. Over 350 different species migrate along the Pacific Flyway every year. The famous cliff swallows settle into San Juan Capistrano and other recurring spots as they complete their epic travel from South America. Sandhill Cranes have returned after their long winter journey. But the coast may be one of the most important areas for some returning species. Birds like California least terns, Western snowy plovers, and brown pelicans rely heavily on the resources provided by the beaches and estuaries along California’s coast.

(CAMBRIA, CALIFORNIA) A flock of sanderlings flies along the coast looking for a beach that may provide food.

“The California least tern was one of the very first species to be put on the endangered species list right after the Endangered Species Act was created,” says Megan Flaherty, Restoration Program Manager for San Diego Audubon Society. She says the birds like to nest along the sandy shore of Southern California through summer when beaches can be especially busy. Development along the coast has also affected the birds. “Coastal habitats have been lost to development, and a big problem is that even the areas that remain to them now are oftentimes overgrown by weeds and non-native vegetation, and they just really reduce the nesting suitability for the birds,” says Flaherty.

(VENTURA, CALIFORNIA) California least terns gather along the shore for courtship, breeding, and nesting.

The western snowy plover is another bird that can be seen using the beaches during this time for their breeding and nesting activities. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed these tiny birds as threatened in 1993. Loss of habitat is one of the biggest problems they face. On some beaches, barriers are put up to reserve a section for them to nest and raise chicks. These are usually in the form of ropes or plastic fencing to help keep beachgoers from disturbing the birds. Susan Sheakley, Chairman of the Conservation Committee for the Sea and Sage Audubon Society says it’s important to, “be aware that the beach is a natural resource that can be critical to these species. It's important to share it to let it be available to the least tern and snowy plover.”

(MALIBU, CALIFORNIA) A Western snowy plover resting in a protected beach area of Malibu Lagoon State Beach.

Besides habitat loss, there may be some other factors affecting the birds. According to a report from the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination & Toxicology, environmental contaminants like pesticides, PCBs, and mercury have been found in the eggs of imperiled birds like California least terns and western snowy plovers. This is very similar to a time when brown pelicans and bald eagles were listed as endangered due to DDT being found in their eggs, dramatically impacting their survivability.

The beaches of California are desirable places to build businesses and homes; the sand and Pacific Ocean present ideal recreation opportunities for residents and tourists. So, it’s important to ensure enough of these valuable resources are left for the animals like shorebirds, terns, and pelicans, that rely on them for their survival. Keeping beaches clean and allowing enough space to serve as habitat for these birds is a good start to making sure these animals have a future.

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