San Elijo Lagoon project aims to benefit threatened birds

Snowy plover, commonly called “snowies,” are about the size of a sparrow. The birds lay tiny eggs, which they camouflage in the sand, making them almost undetectable to a well-trained eye. The hope is to soon re-introduce the species to the San Elijo Lagoon by restoring the sand dunes and creating a new home for the birds.
Snowy plover, commonly called “snowies,” are about the size of a sparrow. The birds lay tiny eggs, which they camouflage in the sand, making them almost undetectable to a well-trained eye. The hope is to soon re-introduce the species to the San Elijo Lagoon by restoring the sand dunes and creating a new home for the birds.

By Marlena Chavira-Medford

Staff Writer

Snowy plovers and tiny shorebirds nest in sand dunes, but the urban influx has gobbled up many of their homes, dwindling their population to less than 330 in San Diego County. However, the rarely seen creatures may soon have a new home in the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve.

Members of the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy are working to protect a four-acre plot of sand dunes in the lagoon’s southwest corner, terrain that is vital to many threatened plants and animals, including snowy plovers. If snowy plovers do indeed start nesting there, it would actually be a homecoming for the birds because more than 30 years ago, dozens called this area home.

“We would be ecstatic in the next year or two to have a couple of nesting pairs on the site,” said Barry Lindgren, the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy’s staff scientist and project principal. “If these birds come back, others will likely follow.

Lindgren said he also hopes to attract least turns, another threatened shorebird that depends on the dunes for nesting — and to protect silvery legless lizards, which live in the sand.

Though it is a small plot of land, this is one of the last surviving coastal strand areas in the county. Sandwiched between Pacific Coast Highway and the Santa Fe railroad tracks, this sandy strip has been subjected to harmful intruders in the form of hikers, bicyclists, and non-native plants.

“We are trying to protect a fragile area that would otherwise be gone,” Lindgren said. “This area impacts the rest of the lagoon. This is one more step in our effort to enhance the overall habitat of the lagoon, which is about 1,000 acres.”

In an effort to keep cyclist and hikers away from the sand dunes, a fence has just been added along the western edge of the area, and a sign instructing people to stay away will soon follow.

Working around the March to September nesting season, crews will also remove invasive plants, such as sea rocket and ice plant, and replace them with native species, like beach primrose, sand verbena, and coast woolly head. San Elijio Lagoon Conservancy members also remove litter, monitor progress, and launch an outreach effort that educates people about the importance of staying away from the sand dunes.

The project, which has been many years in the making, was made possible with support from the California Department of Fish and Game, which owns the land. The project costs about $80,000 and funding came from a few sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which gave approximately $36,000; the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, which gave approximately $43,000; and Patagonia, the National Wildlife Federation, and California Department of Fish and Game, which collectively gave approximately $5,000.

For more information about the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, please visit

sanelijo.org

or call (760) 436-3944.

   
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