Western Snowy Plover Preserve

A view of the Coal Oil Point Reserve from Sands Beach

The Western Snowy Plover is a shorebird that inhabits beaches along the Pacific Coast. It was listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act since their loss of habitat caused a rapid decline in population. Coal Oil Point Reserve made the initiative of protecting this habitat and designated the stretch of beach between Isla Vista and Ellwood the Western Snowy Plover Preserve. Coal Oil Point Reserve is special for the Snowy Plovers because it is one of the few areas along the Pacific west coast with sandy beaches, sand dunes, and is adjacent to an estuary mouth perfect for breeding and thriving. Since the beginning of the Western Snowy Plover Preserve, the average number of hatched chicks (or average number of fledged chicks) has increased since the start of the program in 2001.  During some years, survival of eggs and/or chicks is lower than the prior year due to predators or weather. It is one of the first sites to completely lose a species population, but then recover its breeding population after conservation methods were implemented to show that people can reverse their negative effects on species. Coal Oil Point Reserve educates the public by implementing their Docent Program, elementary school outreach, and by offering tours.


The coastal population of the Western Snowy Plovers historically lived at Coal Oil Point Reserve year around, but in the late 1960’s they abandoned the site for nesting and would only return during the winter. Researchers and scholars believe the plovers became extinct in this nesting site because they were no longer able to tolerate such high levels of disturbance caused by human recreation on the beach. In June of 2001, Coal Oil Point Reserve implemented habitat restoration on the dunes, positioned fencing for the Snowy Plover habitat, installed educational signs, and began the Snowy Plover Docent Program. After two years, the Western Snowy Plovers returned to Coal Oil Point Reserve with an increase in breeding success for the local plover population. The preservation and restoration of the Western Snowy Plover Preserve is crucial because it may help in removing this species from the Endangered Species List.

            The Snowy Plover                                                                                                                                    

Biology of the Western Snowy Plover

The Western Snowy Plover  (Charadrius alexandrinus nivosus) is a federally protected shorebird around the size of a sparrow that is found on the Pacific Coast of the United States from southern Washington to southern Baja, California. It is a small whitish bird with pale brown upper parts, a small black bill, and a small black strip on both sides of its face. The plover is commonly mistaken for semipalmated plovers, black-bellied plovers, and sanderlings because they are commonly found in the same area and are all found at the Coal Oil Point Reserve. Its habitats include: offshore islands, bays, estuaries, and most importantly sand dunes. The sand dunes at the Coal Oil Point Reserve are characterized by “gently sloping, 5-8 feet elevation range” and work as a buffer from nearby trees and shrubs that can house predators.


One of the plover’s greatest assets is to camouflage almost perfectly into the sand it lives in. This is useful during breeding season when they cover and hide their nests from predators and other threats. The plover’s breeding season spans from late March to September and nests are typically very close to shore as the chicks need to feed hourly on small beach hoppers, kelp flies, and other insects. Plovers lay three eggs per nest, but often will have more than one nest in a season, and make their nests out of anything they can find around the area, sometimes even indentations in the sand left from humans. 

Snowy Plover father with his chicks

Animal Threats

Common threats that Western Snowy Plovers face at the Coal Oil Point Reserve are the natural predators of raccoons, skunks, crows, and falcons. Turkey Vultures tend to cause issues for their nests but only when sea mammal corpses wash upon the shore. When animal corpses (typically seals and birds) decay, the only thing that can be done to keep the Turkey Vultures away from the preserve is to move the carcass away and let nature take its course. Turkey Vultures will not eat the nests, but the presence of such a large bird often scares plover parents off of the nests, leaving the eggs unattended until the plover returns. When Snowy Plover Docents see crows, they are equipped with a slingshot to scare away the crows as they eat plovers’ nests.       


Nest Fate at COPR in 2016

Human Threats 

Jessica Nielsen is a Conservation Specialist and manages the Snowy Plover Docent Program at Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve. Nielsen teaches docents everything they need to know about the Snowy Plovers’ biology, breeding habitats, migration routes, feeding grounds, and how to protect them from predation. During an interview with Nielsen, she clearly explained how humans are one of the biggest threats to the Snowy Plovers due to unleashed dogs, human recreation, and trespassing of the preserved fenced areas. Nielsen concluded that overall 90% of her interactions with visitors, which include beach-goers, surfers, locals, and students, are positive to the preservation of the Snowy Plovers. She further explained that 5% are neutral and 5% are negative. Surfers are not generally affected by the plover’s habitat, but greatly respect and appreciate it because they have a nice view of nature from the waves rather than a view of human development. Surfers also find it beneficial since this more private area provides less of a competition between surfers. Most students know about the docent program and set up their belongings right in front of Sands entrance. Some people walk the beach every day and are invested in the reserve’s shorebirds and plovers. Most visitors are invested in the Snowy Plovers and ask how many chicks there are and where the nests are located. This area has much more life than the beaches in downtown Santa Barbara, Los Angeles or even in San Diego. Most of those beaches just have seagulls, crows, and pigeons. It is an amazing place to protect all species as humans show an appreciation for the natural habitats.

People are generally nice but tend to ask why they need to have their dog on a leash and why they need to move over to the open area at the beginning of Sands Beach, which is not a feeding ground for the birds. People play fetch with their dogs, fly their kites, and throw their frisbees, which is a hazard for the plovers in this area. There is a leash law at the Coal Oil Point Reserve which addresses how the reserve is doing their best to collaborate and support beach users and dog owners. Researchers are committed to find a balanced management solution that ensures environmental protection and recreation on the beach since Coal Oil Point Reserve is one of the few reserved beaches around the nation that allow daily public access. The Snowy Plover Preserve makes it their mission to protect the habitat, educate the public, and conduct research to reach prestige for long-term studies since it is adjacent to UC Santa Barbara. The Isla Vista locals respect and acknowledge this program so much that the Western Snowy Plovers have their very own mural near Giovanni's Pizza.  

Cleanup efforts related to the Refugio oil spill are ongoing at Coal Oil Point Reserve, a critical habitat for the Western Snowy Plovers.               

Snowy Plover Docent Program 

A pivotal part of the plover’s conservation efforts is the Snowy Plover Docent Program, which was started in 2001. These docents serve two roles as educators and protectors. They educate the public by sitting at the beginning of the preserve at Coal Oil Point and helping beach visitors identify the birds as well as answering any questions they may have about the plovers or the reserve. The docents also serve as protectors of the birds and enforcers of the reserve's regulations by addressing visitors with unleashed dogs, confronting trespassers of the preserve lines, ensuring active recreation does not get too close to the preserve lines, and encouraging visitors to walk on the wet packed sand as opposed to the beach corridor that is closest to the preserve lines. Docents do their best to maintain the conservation of this area by educating the public on what they can and cannot do while answering their questions. These beach docents are either volunteers or interns with volunteers only being required to complete two hours of service a week and interns a minimum of 50 hours per academic quarter to receive a stipend or units.

Snowy Plover Docent at COPR

The Coal Oil Point Reserve holds K -12 school tours where children in elementary school learn about the local endangered species and what we can do to help them. They also offer monthly tours around the preserve that focus on bringing attention to the Western Snowy Plover Preserve, UCSB Research, and the restoration efforts that are done by the Audubon Society to remove invasive plants.

Visitors of the Coal Oil Point Reserve are encouraged to:

  • Stay out of the fenced habitat areas and stay far away from the fencing

  • Keep their dogs on a leash at all times

  • Refrain from flying their kites, tossing frisbees, or throwing balls near the habitat since any disturbance to a plover’s nest may lead the parents to abandon their nests

  • Dispose of their garbage correctly

  • Leave kelp and driftwood undisturbed as this is a pivotal feeding habitat for the birds

  • Report to the park staff of any threats or disturbances to the plovers and their nests

  • For more info on what you can do to protect the Western Snowy Plover at the COPR read: Sharing the Beach with Snowy Plovers

Posters created by students to encourage beachgoers to “Share the Beach”

Current Nesting State

The Snowy Plover Preserve experiences a growth in the number of nests each year. Their nesting areas are spanning greater distances than the year prior. Both are positive indicators that the Docents Program’s efforts are effective in helping the endangered species thrive once again.

Taken from the Final Report on the Western Snowy Plovers

Public Opinions of the Preserve 

Surfers and beachgoers were interviewed to get a feel of public opinions of the Snowy Plover Preserve. The following is a summary of their opinions:

  • Surfers - When surfers were asked if they knew about the Snowy Plover Preserve, most responded that they did. Generally, the surfers agreed that the preserve does not affect their surfing activities so they do not have any negative opinions of the bird. Rather, most surfers talked positively about the Snowy Plovers. Some surfers even said that they inform other surfers and friends about the Snowy Plover so that they understand the boundaries and respect the Snowy Plover restorations efforts like they do. The surfers in general had a positive opinion about the Snowy Plover and respect the boundaries of the preserve.

  • Beachgoers- Beachgoers varied from students to families to dog owners. The beachgoers experience a more variable opinion compared to the surfers. Their opinions depended on how the Snowy Plover Preserve affected them directly while visiting the beach. Typically, student beachgoers had a positive opinion about the Snowy Plovers because they understood restoration efforts will help the endangered species. The Preserve does not affect student beachgoer’s activities at the beach. Families and dog owners feel that they must become extra observant and careful with their children and dogs around the fence of the preserve, which made it a hassle when they just want to relax and enjoy the beach. Parents agreed that it would be a nicer beach experience without the extra worry, but they understood why the preserve exists and respect its efforts for the Snowy Plover. Dog owners said it is not as enjoyable for them or their dogs if they have to be on a leash. However, they do understand and respect the preserve. Few families and dog owners had positive opinions of the Snowy Plover Preserve. Both generally had a neutral perspective because of how it affected their beach activities. Very few also had negative opinions calling the preserve a “nuisance” and “wasted efforts.”  

  • Similar Areas- In a recent Los Angeles Times article, there is a Snowy Plover population boost in other Southern California beaches. These areas have been abandoned by the Snowy Plovers for seven decades and now are attempting to make a comeback. Similarly to the Snowy Plover Preserve at Coal Oil Point, these birds face numerous threats from human recreation.

Related Media

“The Snowy Plover and You” - Michael Love - 2016 https://vimeo.com/184161227

“Bringing Back the Wild: Coal Oil Point Reserve” - Michael Love - 2017 https://vimeo.com/213266977

“The Western Snowy Plover: Natural History and Restoration” - Michael Love - 2016 https://vimeo.com/18417228


A special thank you to Jessica Nielsen, Dr. Cristina Sandoval, and the team behind the Coal Oil Point Reserve!