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As snowy plovers return to Ocean Beach, park service reminds dog owners to keep canines on a leash

A Western snowy plover in San Francisco. | Jessica Weinberg McClosky / National Park Service

Many a San Francisco coffee connoisseur may know the Snowy Plover as a delightfully refreshing mixture of Pellegrino, espresso and whipped cream. But Andytown Coffee Roasters’ signature iced coffee concoction actually takes its name from a diminutive seasonal denizen of the nearby Ocean Beach.

The Western snowy plover is a small, white-and-brown shorebird that spends 10 months out of the year scuttling up and down a 3.5 mile stretch of San Francisco’s coastline. Just as swallows return to Mission San Juan Capistrano in Orange County every March, plover season begins in San Francisco when these sandy little birds return to Ocean Beach in July. 

It’s possible that you’ve glimpsed a snowy plover emerging from the restored dunes at Crissy Field or nestling into a footprint in the sand at Ocean Beach—and it’s possible your dog has too. 

In 1993, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified the Western snowy plover as a federally threatened species. These small, sensitive birds share their natural habitat with surfers, joggers, bonfires, beach volleyball games, and, most taxing of all, unleashed canines. 

Plovers on Ocean Beach are regularly chased by dogs, which depletes their reserves of energy to forage, migrate and find a mate. 

Starting in 2008, the National Park Service began requiring all dogs to be on-leash within designated Wildlife Protection Areas at Ocean Beach and Crissy Fields for the duration of Plover Season—from July 1 to May 15. 

“This requirement exists to allow plovers the ability to forage or rest without needing to unnecessarily expend energy to evade potential threats, including people and pets,” Julian Espinoza, a Public Affairs Specialist for Golden Gate National Recreation Area, said in an email. 

But getting dog owners to comply with this policy has proven challenging. A report conducted by the Golden Gate Audubon Society between 2009 and 2010 found that compliance with dog leash requirements was approximately 35%, meaning two-thirds of dog-owners failed to comply. 

A decade later, little has changed. A survey conducted by the National Park Service between 2019 and 2020 found that 70% of pets continued to roam the beach off leash. 

In addition to keeping pets leashed up, there are other ways that beach goers can help protect this San Francisco local. 

“We always encourage picnicking visitors to either take their trash with them or plan ahead and move their food into reusable containers before they leave home,” Espinoza said. “Community-led projects, such as beach clean ups, can also help keep the plovers from mistaking trash for their food. Additionally, visitors to the beach should do what they can to keep their natural habitat intact and should never remove kelp or driftwood, which may be critical to their survival.” 

A snowy plover is seen on Ocean Beach on Friday, March 4, 2016 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Lea Suzuki Lea Suzuki/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

The snowy plover lives the majority of its life in view of three, heavily freighted symbols of San Francisco. At Crissy Field, it forages for sand fleas against the dramatic backdrops of Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge. At Ocean Beach, it scampers down the shoreline as the Dutch Windmill rises out of Golden Gate Park. 

The plover is a symbol of San Francisco as well. Not just because it is the namesake of a popular drink at Andytown, but because the plover’s natural habitat—undulating sand dunes and coastal scrub—is exactly what much of San Francisco looked like before it was developed

The National Park Service is devoted to protecting the plover but the effort ultimately has to be community-led. Whether you’re planning to picnic with friends, play volleyball, or take your dog for a run, the NPS suggests you watch out for these little birds nesting in the sand.

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