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Birds and Beach Cleanups

Updated: Aug 2, 2023

Ormond Beach, Oxnard California

photo by Alecia Smith, taken on Ormond Beach

Ormond Beach, like too many beaches everywhere, has a massive trash problem. Annual rains sweep human discards out of the urban watershed and deposit all of it on the lagoon edge, and bigger storms breach the lagoon and flush the trash to nearshore waters where it is washed back up on the beach. This is multiplied by trash generated by the numerous illegal encampments around the lagoon edge and waterways. Local and state agencies responsible for complying with state mandates to capture trash runoff have yet to have any success, meanwhile those of us who work to protect the beach habitat hit re-wind and deal with this problem every year. It is an overwhelming task for small non-profits, local groups and individuals to attempt to clean-up the amount of trash we encounter. Many have trash burnout.

Trash Harms Birds

Trash attracts predators. The major predators at Ormond Beach are ravens, crows, coyote and skunks. These animals are all opportunistic scavengers attracted to human activity because they associate it with an easy meal. They'll come to sniff through the trash, and then continue searching and end up finding eggs in nests to eat. Once they have that pattern down they will continue to search out nests. A really smart predator like a raven can wipe out an entire beach of nests in a couple days. Ideally, we want all the trash away from nesting habitat before nesting season starts.

Beach Cleanups at the Appropriate Time of Year

We support beach cleanups, but once we get into nesting season they pose risk to sensitive birds. We have often been in the position of asking people NOT to do beach cleanups, even though it seems counter to the logic of protecting beach habitat. Having heavy equipment on the beach and many people searching around for trash near nesting birds causes more harm than good. The restriction on the time of year for these kinds of activities is part of the USFWS recovery plans for these species.

On Ormond Beach, our Coastal Development Permit prohibits entry by vehicles or equipment on the beach from March 15 - Sept 15th.

Risk to nests and chicks

Snowy plovers survive by being near impossible to find. Their feathers are the color of sand, they see humans coming long before humans see them, and they move so as to not be seen. This defensive behavior extends to their nests and chicks, both of which are sand colored and speckled to blend in. Nests can be outside of protective fencing. Chicks of both species typically DO NOT stay inside protective fencing and there is a high chance they will be foraging at the tideline. They instinctively freeze when a threat approaches. Because they are near invisible to humans they are easily stepped on and crushed. Least tern chicks are also flightless and at risk for being crushed. Both species will abandon nesting sites if there is too much disturbance.

The photo below shows how hard it can be to see a snowy plover or least tern nest:

Chicks are also hard to see, even for the experienced. This video was captured of chicks outside the south habitat fence on Ormond Beach by Alecia Smith:

This snowy plover chick was found dead in 2020 outside of the Ormond Beach South Habitat fence line and had been stepped on:

Why To Not Do Beach Cleanups During Nesting Season - Recent Experience

On July 31, 2023 a beach cleanup was held on Ormond Beach. It was a corporate sponsored cleanup led by a local government official rather than local community groups who understand the sensitivity of nesting habitat during the summer time. Dumpsters were moved with heavy equipment into a fenced habitat area. This is something that has been done many times, but not during nesting season. Organizers were focused on removing a tremendous amount of trash behind the fenced area. This situation was complicated because the symbolic fencing was missing the cable used to demarcate the habitat. It had been stolen multiple times and we hoped the many posts with signs indicating that the area is closed from March 15- Sept 15 would be sufficient to keep people out of the area.

Below: Tractor tracks inside the fenced habitat

The tractor drove between fence posts past signs that indicated the area is closed:

Heavy equipment on the beach chewed up the sand outside of the fenced area and back to the point of origin at Hueneme Beach:

We were told that it was reasoned because there were no nests a beach clean up would be safe for birds, even though we were not consulted about the status of nesting season. In addition, the organizer didn't know there were tern and plover chicks in the area and there was no trained biologist present who is skilled at identifying the birds. Furthermore, the fenced area serves as a refuge for the growing flock of plovers roosting at the tideline. When the birds are flushed by beach goers they retreat into the fenced area, but having heavy equipment moving trash bins inside and beach cleaners in the area cuts off that place of safety.

Each week we map the locations of the plover chicks we locate on the beach, including the day before the cleanup. The heavy equipment was in the same location as the chicks for the next 2 days. We do not know if any chicks were killed, we will make a concerted effort to search for chicks in the coming weeks. Below is a map of the chick sightings for 2 weeks before the beach cleanup, and the tractor tracks from Friday and Sat July 28-29, 2023. We will continue our weekly surveys and will be searching for chicks in this area.

We want snowy plovers and least terns to have an environment free of human trash, but if we do beach cleanups at the wrong time we can kill them or drive them away. They have already lost so much to development they can't afford to lose more nesting sites.

  • Beach cleanups should never occur near nesting habitat between March 15 and September 15. Thankfully community groups like Surfrider and Coastal Keepers get it.

  • The September Coastal Cleanup event is an excellent first opportunity to finally get into nesting habitat to get that trash out that has build up over the season

  • VAS organizes some habitat cleanup days before nesting season and many other great groups hold regular cleanups throughout the fall and winter

  • We need to continue to put pressure on local and state agencies to solve the trash problem on our beaches so this isn't a problem in the first place

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