Western Snowy Plover and California Least Tern

Photo frame of adult and chick Western Snowy Plovers and California Least Terns in nesting habitat

Oceano Dunes SVRA, a popular OHV park with over 1.6 million visitors per year, is an important breeding site for two special-status ground nesting birds—the state and federally endangered California least tern and the federally threatened Western snowy plover. Loss of habitat, human disturbance and predation are the main causes of the declining population of both Western snowy plover and California least tern. Oceano Dunes with its vast areas of open sand provides ideal habitat for both protected birds.   

Western Snowy Plover with bands on

Western Snowy Plovers

Snowy plovers are small, light-colored, ground-nesting shorebirds present year-round at the park. They have adapted to use camouflage to hide themselves and nests from predators (including people), often invisible to the untrained eye. After the nests are incubated day and night for about four weeks by both the male and female, the chicks leave the nest within hours of hatching often never to return. Plover chicks capture their food on their own but are dependent on the adults for warmth and warnings of danger nearby. If a young chick is separated from its associated adult, they are unable to survive on their own.

California Least TernsPhoto of two California Least Terns

Least terns are present at the park only during the breeding season, generally from April to September. They are the smallest tern in North America, similar in size to the snowy plover (~6 inches), but with a longer wingspan. Like the snowy plover, the least tern is a ground-nesting bird, having well camouflaged nests easily passed by predators and unaware beach goers. Least terns feed on small fish caught from the surface of the water of the ocean or nearby freshwater lakes. While plover chicks hunt and capture their own food, least tern chicks are dependent on the adults to bring them appropriately sized fish.

Park staff have been monitoring breeding least terns since 1991 and snowy plovers since 1992. Management efforts currently include:

  • maintaining an approximate 300-acre fenced exclosure,
  • additional closures for nests outside of the 300-acre fenced exclosure,
  • extensive seasonal habitat enhancement,
  • intensive daily monitoring of nests and chicks by Park staff and contractors,
  • color banding of both snowy plover and least tern chicks,
  • predator management,
  • educating Park visitors, and
  • enforcement of resource protection regulations.

These efforts continue to help in the recovery of the least tern and snowy plover populations at the park while keeping OHV use and other recreational opportunities available to the public. 

Protect Your Right to Play...

Remember, Wildlife Has the Right of Way!

What do you need to know?

  • You may not always see wildlife where you recreate, but at Oceano Dunes SVRA there is an abundance of wildlife, especially shorebirds. Two of them, the threatened Western snowy plover and the endangered California least tern, are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.
  • March 1 – September 30: these birds are nesting on the sands of Oceano Dunes SVRA.
  • Winter months the plovers are most vulnerable because they are typically inactive. They often crouch in small depressions in the sand, which make them very well camouflaged and extremely hard to see.
  • Year round, shorebirds are easily disturbed by people and dogs. Please keep your distance.

How do I protect my recreational opportunities?

Reduce your impact by obeying the following laws and park policies:

  • Obey the posted 15 mph speed limit.
  • Dogs must be kept on leashes at all times.
  • Do not drive into flocks of birds. Give all birds the right of way.
  • Dispose of trash properly. Trash attracts predators.
  • Do not enter posted nesting areas.
  • Parking/camping is prohibited within 100 feet of posted nesting areas.
  • No kite flying south of Pier Avenue March 1-September 30 (Nesting Season). Kites look like predators.
  • Please report to park staff any nests, threats or disturbances to plovers.