Temporal and spatial variation in bird and human use of beaches in southern California

Kevin D. Lafferty, University of California, Santa Barbara
Donald A. Rodriguez, California State University, Channel Islands
Angela M. Chapman, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley


Southern California’s beaches can support a remarkable diversity of birds along the Pacific Flyway. We asked whether seasonal, annual, and spatial factors affect bird richness and abundance on public beaches. To do so, we conducted three years of monthly bird surveys on 12 sandy beaches in Ventura California. Across all surveys, we counted 22 shorebird species, 8 gull species, 24 other water bird species, and 24 landbird species. Sanderling, western gull, Heerman’s gull, willet, marbled godwit, and whimbrel were the most abundant members of the bird community. Beach wrack was uncommon, particularly where beaches were groomed, and did not have a large effect on bird abundance, though it was positively associated with overall bird richness. Beaches near estuaries tended to be wide, and such beaches had a higher richness and abundance of birds. Beaches with shallow slopes tended to have more gulls and shorebirds. People and (illegal) unleashed dogs were common, particularly at beaches fronted by houses. The abundance and richness of shorebirds and the richness of other waterbirds was lower where human activity was high. Bird richness and abundance was strongly affected by season, with the highest density of birds being seen during the fall shorebird migration. Gull abundance peaked earlier (August-September) than shorebird abundance (October through December). A brief pulse of shorebirds also occurred in May due to spring migration. Comparing these data with surveys in the 1990’s found no evidence for a decline in shorebirds over time, though black-bellied plover appear to still be recovering from the strong 1997-1998 ENSO. Opportunities to conserve birds on these beaches are limited, but could include enforcing leash laws and setting up human exclosures near estuary mouths.