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The Least Tern Project
at Huntington State Beach
Least Tern incubating eggs
Photo by Cyndie Kam
Least Tern Eggs
Photo by Cyndie Kam
Fledged Least Tern Chick
Photo by
Jim Salywoda

Volunteer docents are now monitoring the area where Snowy Plovers attempt to nest every year and where California Least Terns are now nesting. The area is located at the North side of the Santa Ana River mouth at Huntington State Beach, accessed from the Magnolia Street entrance.

The plovers cannot compete with unaware beach users. The “Snowys” hunker down in small impressions in the sand. Only very alert people would even notice these tiny sand-colored birds, their eggs or chicks. The terns, which are more numerous than the plovers, have already set up nesting sites, and must protect their nests and young from marauding birds, loose dogs, and beach users.

The primary role of the volunteer docent is to be a positive educator to the public and a protector of the birds and their nesting area. Information about the birds is generally very well received by the public. Docents receive a short training session, an instruction manual, a parking pass to enter this part of the state beach for monitoring, and all information and materials needed (just bring your own chair and binoculars).

It is not too late for YOU to join this project! Volunteers are desperately needed for 2 hour (or longer) shifts to protect the birds during daylight hours. The days will be getting longer and foot traffic on the beach will increase. Do you love the beach at first light, evenings at dusk or anytime of day? Like to watch shorebirds? Here’s your chance to enjoy it all, and at the same time help the birds!

The Least Tern Monitoring Site
at Huntingon State Beach

A volunteer monitor ready to begin a shift at the Least Tern Preserve

Observing inside the Preserve

Observing beach activity in front of the Preserve. (It gets much busier in the summer, the same time the terns are nesting and raising young.)
Looking over the "front yard" for tern activity. They nest here as well as inside the Preserve.

Looking for Snowy Plovers along the beach.

Monitor recording sightings of Snowy Plovers, Least Terns, and their potential predators as well as any contacts with people.


Contact Chelsia Crager if you would like to help with this project. 
Volunteers are needed to sign up for 2 hour shifts to protect these birds during daylight hours.  If you can help, please contact Chelsia Crager ( ) who coordinates the volunteers for this project.  For those of you who enjoy watching shorebirds, this is a great opportunity to study these birds at close range.  The nesting site is part of Huntington State Beach; volunteers will receive a free pass to enter this section of the beach for this project. 

The California Least Tern and the Western Snowy Plover in Orange County
by Cheryl Egger
Even though the endangered California Least Tern and the threatened Pacific Coast population of the Western Snowy Plover prefer the same beach habitat for breeding, they require different approaches for protection from predators and human interference. Historically, both of these species were abundant along the Orange County beaches. Both species nest in the sand by scraping a small depression with their belly and lining it with pieces of shells, stones, or fragments of nearby substrate. The eggs and chicks of both species are speckled, so the nest, eggs and young are extremely well camouflaged and can be easily stepped on. Both species breed during spring and summer, coinciding with heavy beach activity. Due to human disturbance, loss of habitat to development, and the increase of predators brought with urbanization, there has been a decline of useful breeding habitat for Least Terns and Snowy Plovers. The remaining breeding areas are fragmented, concentrated, and surrounded by development or human recreational activities, making management and predator control essential
In Orange County there are only five breeding colonies of Least Terns: Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Huntington State Beach, Upper Newport Bay, Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge, and Burris Basin. The Snowy Plovers are breeding consistently only at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. all of these breeding areas require close monitoring and management for success.
The Least Terns are migratory and are colonial nesters. They have an interesting defense system of their own against predators. Up-flights of large numbers of terns from the colony dart through the air, diving at the intruder, while calling loudly and even defecating on the intruder (docents need to wear hats). The tern parents make shallow dives from the air for small fish along the near waters of the coast and its estuaries to feed their young, making the adults and young vulnerable to fish abundance, and oil spills. They bring the fish back to the colony to their semiprecocial young. In a fenced-in colony, the young will wander about, but are restricted to the colony until they are able to fly over the fence. Low, fine meshed “chick fencing” keeps the chicks and pre-fledglings from wandering out where they could easily be stepped on or predated. These fences provide some protection from terrestrial predators and humans, but not from avian predators. Areas along the shore are also needed by the terns for the adults to teach the fledglings how to fish and for all of them to loaf. The beach location of the colony at Huntington State Beach is heavily used by people, constantly disturbing and distressing the birds. However, this colony has been one of the most successful in the state. The fledglings and adults disperse both north and south along the coast, possibly to find locations where disturbance is minimal, to have a place for the parents to begin teaching the fledglings how to "fish", before migrating south.
The Western Snowy Plover is not migratory, but disperses along the coast in winter. Our local beaches are home to Snowy Plovers from Orange Coounty and other locations in the winter. This species faces even more challenges to a successful breeding season. They nest individually or in very loose colonies, with nests spaced further apart than the Least Terns. The young are precocial and run about within a few hours of hatching. They need to be able to leave their nest area in search of food, so an enclosed preserve such as those provided for some tern colonies would not be an option for the plovers. Their feeding method is to run and glean. They glean invertebrates from the wet or dry sand or wave-tossed kelp. Over the years, as the plovers became increasingly disturbed by people using the same habitat, they stopped nesting and raising young on Orange County beaches.
The Snowy Plover breeding population at Bolsa Chica is closely monitored. If a nest is found, a wire mini-exclosure (“ME”) is put over it. These MEs have kept nest predation down by preventing access by most predators, but have large enough openings to allow the plovers to get out. The plovers do not stay at the protected nest after the young have hatched. Both the adults and chicks are vulnerable to the abundant predators in the area as soon as they venture outside of the ME.

The Pacific coast population of the Western Snowy Plover population is unstable and very low overall in its entire range, even with active management.  Sea & Sage Audubon conducts quarterly surveys of our beaches to determine where and how Snowy Plovers use our beaches. For more information about joining the Snowy Plover Survey Team, please see the Orange County Snowy Plover Survey section of the Sea and Sage website or contact our Volunteer Coordinator at: OCSNPLSurvey@gmail.com


Through a partnership with California State Parks and Sea & Sage Audubon, a volunteer docent monitoring effort for the Least Terns began in 2005 at the Huntington State Beach Least Tern Natural Preserve. After completing orientation, training and a Live-scan process, volunteers for this program become State Parks Volunteers and observe the terns nesting, chick rearing and fledging first hand. All observations are recorded and serve to help the management of this colony. As a docent, you will be an ambassador for these very special birds.

If you would like to help with the Least Tern docent/monitoring project at Huntington State Beach, please contact Chelsia Crager at: . Our season kick-off is usually the third week in April, just about the time the Least Terns return to the Preserve to get ready to begin nesting. The terns have usually headed south by mid August. Please join the excitement! This is a valuable program for the future of these birds. They are amazing and beautiful to watch, and the chicks are adorable!
Now, more than ever, citizen science programs are important and Sea and Sage Audubon is pleased to offer programs for both Least Terns and Snowy Plovers.

Literature Cited:
5-Year Review, California Least Tern, USFWS
5-Year Review, Short Form Summary, Pacific Coast Population of Western Snowy Plover, USFWS
Birds of North America Online, Snowy Plover and Least Tern Monographs
Draft, California Least Tern 2006 Summary Table, USFWS
Life at the Ocean’s Edge, The Western Snowy Plover and the California Least Tern, Video, produced by La Purisima Audubon Society and Pygmy Mammoth Productions, 1999
Listed Bird Species, Western Snowy Plover, USFWS, AFWO, Endangered Species Branch
Personal Communication, P. Knapp
Personal Communication, D. Pryor
Western Snowy Plover - Sharing the Beach, California State Parks
Western Snowy Plover Nesting at Bolsa Chica, Orange County, Calilfornia 2004, J. Fancher, P. Knapp, L. Hays, USFWS, Jan. 2005
Western Snowy Plover to Retain Threatened Status, USFWS, April 21, 2006
updated 3/11/18








Sea & Sage Audubon Society
PO Box 5447 • Irvine, CA 92616 • 949-261-7963