On a sunny day at Monterey County's Moss Landing State Beach, ranger Dave Dixon scans the sand and points toward the dunes. "There's one," he says. He's in search of Western snowy plovers―sparrow-size shorebirds with a sand-colored back, white belly, and jaunty dark patches on each cheek―which are nesting this month along the beaches of the Pacific Coast.
Snowy plovers have "precocious" young, which means chicks leave the nest―a shallow depression in the sand―the same day they hatch, looking like puffy little dust bunnies. Tracking the hatchlings is critical, Dixon says; coastal populations of Western snowy plovers have been listed as a threatened species since 1993.
While some beaches restrict access during nesting season (see "Secret Sand," page 56), you can still explore Moss Landing. Use binoculars to scan the dunes for plovers. If adults start acting strangely (faking a broken wing is common), you are near a nest or young and are stressing the adults; move away quietly.
INFO: Moss Landing State Beach ( www.parks.ca.gov or 831/649-2836) is 20 miles south of Santa Cruz and 16 miles north of Monterey via State 1.