Coronado's beaches serve as a nesting areas for two sensitive bird populations, the Western Snowy Plover and the California Least Tern. Their nesting seasons span from March through September. Unfortunately, their proximity to military base activities threatens the welfare of their nests.
For instance, a Los Angeles Times report quoted wildlife biologist for Coronado's naval bases, Tiffany Shepherd, as stating that in 2010 approximately "139 plover nests and 1,146 tern nests were found on military locations in Coronado. Records are kept of how many tern nests are destroyed by training--about 30 to 40 a year on the oceanfront."
The Western Snowy Plover is a shorebird, whose population has alarmingly decreased; in 1993 the federal government listed it as a threatened species. The size of a sparrow, its nest is highly camouflaged, and can be made from human footprints, pebbles, kelp, shells, driftwood, and fishbones. Because it is well-hidden, even to the well-trained eye, a nest can be accidentally stepped upon, even by beachcombers, bike riders, and young kids flying kites. The Western Snowy Plover's predators have included falcons, coyotes, and domestic pets.
One Western Snowy Plover recovery organization's website has described the bird's plight: "Often, when a Plover parent is disturbed, it will abandon its nest, which increases the chance of a predator finding the eggs, sand blowing over and covering the nest, or the eggs getting cold. This can decrease the number of chicks that hatch in a particular year. Did you know that a kite flying overhead looks like a predator to a plover? A kite over a nesting area can keep an adult off the nest for long periods of time."
To help in the recovery program of Western Snowy Plover populations, it is recommended that they be allowed "to remain in their breeding area, undisturbed, throughout the breeding season."
The California Least Tern likewise has long been an endangered species. Despite their status having been downgraded in recent years to the "threatened" category, their population figures are still of great concern to conservationists and environmentalists because their numbers have only leveled out rather than healthily increase. This is perhaps attributed to nesting grounds being continually vulnerable to human encroachment.
The California Least Tern's range has been documented as covering the Pacific Coast from Baja California to San Francisco, and at times they are "seen as far north as southern Oregon," according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. These birds winter in Mexico, but they return to the California shores for their nesting season. Mating commences in April or May and can continue until June, with the breeding age beginning in the third year. Elaborate aerial displays are performed by wooing males, after which they provide offerings of fishes to the females-----this activity has been termed the "fish flight display." Not long after, nesting begins.
Nests are comprised of simple scrapes in the sand to hollow out a shallow depression. Once the young have hatched, that simple nest is lined with some shell fragments. From these descriptions of the simple nests, it can be gleaned why California Least Tern nests are very fragile, for they can easily be overlooked and stepped upon. Two to three eggs are the typical count for a mating pair, and they are incubated for about three weeks or so. US Fish and Wildlife Service has documented California Least Tern parenting style as both father and mother incubating and caring for the young. Indeed, once the eggs hatch, the young, although rather precocious, are nevertheless still dependent on their parents for food and care. After another three weeks or so, they will fledge the nest, and come autumn they join their parents in the migration south.
Sadly, the California Least Tern population remains vulnerable because of such factors as nesting disturbance. The California Department of Fish and Game has shared that California Least Terns are "sensitive nesters and breeders" because once their "nesting sites are disturbed or overcrowded, they will abandon the land." Other threats to California Least Terns include dredging activities, predation by wild animals (e.g. raccoons, owls, crows, feral cats, etc) as well as domesticated pets, pollution, habitat loss, and perhaps even West Nile virus. Still other culprits blamed for the demise of the California Least Tern populations include pesticides and toxins (DDT, selenium, mercury) accumulating in the fish they eat.
Historically, the California Least Tern began disappearing in the 19th and 20th centuries, since their feathers were quite prized for use in hats. Prior to that, "there were hundreds of thousands of Least Terns," as stated by wildlife ecologist Rob Burton of the Bay Area firm H. T. Harvey and Associates Ecological Consultants
The California Least Tern population continued to decrease further as construction, waterfront development, and urban sprawl encroached upon the birds' nesting territories. Thus, by World War II, the terns were documented to have been "either gone or very rare."
In 1970 scientists began census counts of the California Least Tern, especially in Alameda, Los Angeles, and San Diego counties. The sobering tally was a small total of only 225 pairs in all of the state of California. Hence, the federal government placed the tern on the endangered species list. From the 1970s to the 1990s, the birds' numbers have rebounded from the brink, thanks to concerted efforts by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Game, as well as several non-profit conservation groups working to protect nest beaches. It is estimated there are approximately 7000 pairs of California Least Terns statewide.
And while US naval bases have contributed to some conservation efforts since the 1970s, new military policies might pose a new threat to the California Least Tern population once again. For example, the Los Angeles Times has cited that there have been recent "military plans to greatly increase training on Silver Strand [on Coronado, California].....The SEALs [on US Naval Amphibious Base Coronado] are boosting their numbers, and the Marines [in Camp Pendleton, another enclave of California Least Tern nesting], with the war in Afghanistan winding down, are returning to their historic specialty: striking from the sea [which entails heavy practices on beaches and shorelines]."
Despite the "818-page environmental impact report, written by the Navy and the US Fish and Wildlife Service [wherein] the military pledged that the birds will not suffer because of the increased military use of the beach," many environmentalists and conservationists maintain a watchful stance. After all, it only takes a handful of gung-ho humans distracted by mission objectives to forget about where their boots step, where their military-issue vehicles are parked, and where heavy equipment from amphibious assault ships are placed. And while a recent military beach cleanup on Coronado's Silver Strand collected "14 cubic yards of junk, including plastic bags, foam cups, straws, small pieces of rope, Chemlights, cigarette packages, aerosol cans, chunks of wood and a few tires.....[as well as some] stuff probably washed ashore from civilian boats...[and] the [military] dummy bullets," it is hard telling what will be done the rest of the time when no publicity machines or press are around to keep the service members mindful of conservation values.
In the language of the proposal there was intention for: "expanding training activities into environmentally sensitive habitat areas (ESHA)." And while the US Navy expressed knowledge of the sensitive species--even specifiying in their proposal "the California least tern and western snowy plover on the Oceanside beaches, and San Diego fairy shrimp in vernal pools and salt marshes further inland"--that would be threatened, they still pushed for expansion into these nesting territories. The proposal continues, "In the past, the Navy has agreed to avoid or seasonally [avoid] these areas; however the Navy states they will be needed for the expanded training levels proposed.....all three species remain at serious risk of extinction; ongoing threats to these species, including relatively recent threats from predation by gull-billed terns, climate change and sea level rise, pose further risks. The areas currently off limits to training but proposed for expansion of training are regionally highly significant and particularly important for each of the three species."
If the US Navy even states the dismal figures for these threatened species' low numbers-----e.g. "While overall least tern populations are up, reproductive success numbers for the past 20 years are troubling, particularly in the San Diego area. Snowy plover numbers have not been increasing but have stayed relatively constant since 2005, and statewide populations have decreased since 2005. Over 97% of vernal pools of San Diego County have been destroyed and since its listing, San Diego shrimp populations have not increased"-----why then would the US Navy forego efforts to protect these sensitive species further? Has the culture of the US Navy changed so much that it would establish the Environmental Protection and Energy Conservation (EPEC) Award in one area, and yet hypocritically exacerbate the environment of sensitive species within its bases? Has the US Navy lost sight of its commitment and tradition to being good stewards of beaches and ecosystem habitats within its bases and properties?