My Volunteer Journal: Episode 41 – Bird Science with the Audubon Society

snowyploverIf only birds woke up later I would be a happy person.

Once again I dragged my insomniac a$% out of bed to help save the world. Today protecting the planet and mankind means counting birds. I know, calm down, I can’t believe I’m doing something so selfless either. What avian specimen would I be stalking? The Western Snowy Plover - a cute little bird that drops dead due to human encroachment and general indecency. They are so delicate the occasional flasher gives them tiny heart attacks - I halfway kid.

The Audubon Society* uses volunteers to monitor threatened and endangered birds. They were nice enough to let me tag along on a bi-monthly survey of the Plovers at Dockweiler, one of Los Angeles busiest beaches.

I met biologist Stacy in one of Dockweiler’s many parking lots. She handed me a pair of (awesome) binoculars, and showed me the survey form we had to fill out. We would be record the number of Plovers, human activity in the area, other birds, signs of dogs, etc.

Stacy wanted me to know what a Plover looked like in action so to begin our survey she took me to “Plover Mecca.” Far be it for me to disturb a bird’s religious experience, but Stacy insisted.

We walked a few hundred yards and then she pointed at a square of orange cones in the sand and said, “There they are.” I hated to debate with her, but those were cones. I put my binoculars to my eyes, and looked…mmmm…yup…cones. She saw me scanning aimlessly, “Do you see the things that look like paper cups or pieces of paper?” Oh no, she’s like a Big Foot freak! Making animals in her mind from beach debris. Sad. Then a piece of paper moved against the wind. A tiny sand colored bird with a white chest had turned its head right in the middle of the cones. It was like a magic eye trick - when I saw one I could spot a dozen in the area. They all sat in old footprints half hidden from view.

Stacy told me that if something big approaches a Plover they hunker down and try to blend with the sand. Unfortunately, they don’t move, not even for a bulldozer. But if, for example, an unleashed dog were to scare them bad enough, the energy lost during flight could prove fatal. Simply put they would be too tired to find the sand fleas and the miniscule crustaceans they eat. Kites also send plovers into nervous fits, causing them to abandon their nests, because they think the kite is a bird of prey. The plover is an adorable and neurotic little bird.

Since I could now spot a Plover in the wild we started our survey. Along the walk we saw big dog tracks, several bulldosers making sand berms, pigeons, gulls, crows, black chested plovers, and two dead Grebes, but no Snowy Plovers. Stacy was nice enough to narrate the experience and teach me things like how to tell adult sea gull from adolescents and other bird factoids. Hopefully these questions will come up during Trivial Pursuit, otherwise, I will be forced to bore my family members with them next time we go to the beach. Alas we walked the whole way without seeing another Plover. Stay wasn’t surprised. Plovers haven’t nested on LA beaches since 1949. We were lucky to see them at their cone protected hang out.

The health of the Plovers, like many bird species, is a good indication of environmental health (the canary in the coalmine). The Audubon Society has a long and distinguished history of environmental conservation. Data collected from wildlife studies across the country will help them come up with viable solutions to the man vs. nature paradigm.

As we walked back to our cars, data in hand, Stacy told me that baby Plovers are so tiny they look like popcorn with legs. I think popcorn with legs is going to be on my must see list next year.

For more information on the Plovers watch this Audubon endorsed award winning video produced by students (no joke) from Dorsey High School’s Film Production Program, it’s also available in Spanish, or visit the Audubon Society website.

*Note: When texting people about your wonderful volunteer service with the Audubon Society make sure not to type Audobon, Autobon, or Autobahn. These are not high-speed German birds you are monitoring (Unless you live in Germany). Due to my repeated misspelling my brother was confused and eventually disappointed by the lack of cars in this episode.