On shorebirds, and offshore drilling, and losing shorelines

by Jill Poskanzer

After over a year spent primarily inside due to world events, it felt good to wake up every Saturday morning, make coffee, gather my necessary survey materials, and drive an hour down to Marina del Rey, California, to survey the endangered California least terns. A subspecies of the smallest member of the tern family, these little shorebirds return to specific nesting sites on the Pacific coast each year to breed before journeying further south for the winter.

Every Saturday for most of spring and summer, I would make slow, deliberate circles around their fenced-off enclosure, peering through my binoculars to observe the terns, recording their numbers and behavior in my little notebook, and monitoring any perceived or actual threats to this endangered species. I would watch the terns swoop low over their nests, then arc high into the air and wing out over the rough tides of the Pacific Ocean, their white silhouettes stark against the blue California sky.

I worked as a volunteer through the Los Angeles Audubon Society, monitoring the terns once a week, and periodically monitoring the threatened snowy plover, another shorebird, as needed. Both species are threatened not only by predators, but by the ever looming tide of climate change. Climate change threatens shorebirds’ very habitats – with rising ocean levels, the beaches they nest and forage on will erode and disappear. It also affects their food sources, which affects breeding, which can – in the most dire situations – lead to extinction. And that’s not to mention the direct and devastating effects that manmade disasters have on some already precarious shorebird populations.

On October 2nd, 2021, a pipeline off the coast of Orange County, CA leaked, spilling an estimated 25,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean, killing at least 82 birds and 6 mammals, and injuring many others. Luckily, although seven snowy plovers were found oiled, none perished as a result of the spill. Ben Smith, a biologist and environmental consultant for Orange County, noted on the scene of the spill in Huntington Beach, “You think by now we would have figured out how to keep this kind of thing from happening, but I guess not.”

This isn’t an isolated incident. “Oil spills can happen anywhere oil is drilled, transported, or used,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. When wildlife becomes oiled, it can harm or even kill them. Here is an extremely brief but informative article detailing the many ways oil spills harm wildlife, detailing how oil becomes stuck in the fur and feathers of animals, leading to death by hypothermia, or how inhalation or consumption of oil will poison creatures or otherwise lead to long term health effects.

Oil spills can also halt or stop tourism on affected beaches, and NOAA notes that “cleanup activities can never remove 100% of the oil spilled.” I myself have been to the beach and wound up with tar on my feet; I ended up spending a half hour furiously scrubbing my soles off at the outdoor shower, and every time I walk barefoot in the wake, I find myself staring at the ground more often than not, instead of looking up and around to enjoy the natural beauty of the shore and the ocean. And as long as we continue drilling and transporting crude oil, there will be oil spills.

How can we help to mitigate oil spills? Primarily, by decreasing the amount of offshore oil drilling and collection. Oil is a fossil fuel; fossil fuels are used to power roughly 80% of energy use, with petroleum accounting for about 35%. While U.S. consumption of petroleum products is forecast to decrease in the coming years, the NRDC notes that production has only increased due to, among other factors, fracking. The use of fossil fuels contributes directly to global warming, worsening the climate crisis and endangering all life on earth.

But actions are being taken. In the immediate aftermath of the October 2nd oil spill, Senator David Min (D-CA) announced that he would be introducing legislation to halt all drilling in California waters. Senator Min stated “Enough is enough. I don’t want to be back having this conversation in two years or five years or 10 years when we’ve had another major oil spill.” Furthermore, the company that operated the pipeline, Amplify Energy,  has been hit with multiple class action lawsuits, and has been indicted by a grand jury for negligence and for causing the oil spill.

Ultimately, the biggest changes rest on the shoulders of people far more powerful than your average citizen – such as fossil fuel companies and state and federal legislators – and this can make the entire situation seem hopeless. However, there are still things the average citizen can do. Write to your congresspeople about the need to invest in clean energy. Donate to climate change or wildlife nonprofits – here’s a good list of climate change nonprofits you can give to today. Or volunteer directly with an organization or nonprofit that’s fighting to protect our shores and wildlife, like the California Audubon Society or the Sierra Club.

The number of snowy plovers in California was decreasing steadily for years. But in 2018, a snowy plover nest was discovered on Huntington Beach for the first time in roughly fifty years. The October 2nd oil spill could not have come at a worse time, threatening the very habitat these birds are struggling to reclaim, nest by nest. They are simply trying to make a home for themselves in this rapidly evolving – and in many ways, deteriorating – world.

As part of my volunteering with the LA Audubon, I headed down to Will Rogers beach one late Sunday afternoon in November, and I picked my way down the coast slowly, keeping an eye out for oiled wildlife. I marked down every bird I saw, almost all of which seemed fine – ducks and seagulls swimming near the shore, pipers milling about in the waning tide. A sandpiper – possibly a willet – limped along in the foggy sunset, clearly favoring one leg over the other. I watched him for ages, anxiously texting my volunteer coordinator about his condition. He picked at things in the wake, and once he took off into the air before settling a bit down the beach. Eventually I had to move on, but I kept glancing back until he was out of sight.

Further down I saw a happier sight – dozens of snowy plovers rushing about in the sandy dunes, free from oil. I marked down every one I saw, trying to keep them all straight. Here, amidst the ever-present environmental threats to their habitats and their species, these little shorebirds were thriving in the dying sunlight. I remained out there until it became too dark to see any more, and then I turned around and walked back along the beach to my car.

Jill Poskanzer  is a contributing member of the Grassroots Network Climate Emergency Mobilization team. If you have a suggestion for a future topic or are interested in joining the team, please reach out to us at climateemergency[at]sfbaysc[dot]org.


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