Coronado sailors clean up imperiled birds' nesting areas

CORONADO —On most days, a three-mile stretch of Silver Strand beach here is used for training Navy SEALs, sailors and Marines.

Thursday was not a usual day.


Dozens of sailors spent the morning in a slow, head-down walk along the restricted beach, searching for detritus that could harm the Western snowy plover and the California least tern, two imperiled bird populations that use the strand for nesting.

"This is our office," said sailor Daniel Torres, 26, from New Mexico, one of the Navy beachmasters — specialists in bringing vehicles and other heavy equipment ashore from amphibious assault ships. "We're here every day. It's good to clean up your office once in a while."

And clean they did: 14 cubic yards of junk, including plastic bags, foam cups, straws, small pieces of rope, Chemlights, cigarette packages, aerosol cans, chunks of wood and a few tires. Much of the stuff probably washed ashore from civilian boats, but the dummy bullets were definitely military.

"I love birds," said sailor Jake Herman, 20, of Chicago, opening his hand to display a half-dozen of the blanks that he had just scooped from the sand.

For the plover and the tern, nesting season stretches from March to September. Training continues, but officers in charge of the exercises are given maps indicating the location of tern nests. The nests of the plovers, the more imperiled of the populations, are marked by blue stakes, said Tiffany Shepherd, wildlife biologist for Naval Base Coronado.

Two years ago, 139 plover nests and 1,146 tern nests were found on military locations in Coronado. Records are kept of how many tern nests are destroyed by training — about 30 to 40 a year on the oceanfront, Shepherd said.

The military plans to greatly increase training on Silver Strand, giving the cleanup and mapping process added significance. The SEALs are boosting their numbers, and the Marines, with the war in Afghanistan winding down, are returning to their historic specialty: striking from the sea.

In an 818-page environmental impact report, written by the Navy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the military pledged that the birds will not suffer because of the increased military use of the beach.

Environmental groups are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

"If the military does everything it has promised, the birds should not be negatively impacted," said Rebecca Schwartz, conservation program manager with the San Diego Audubon Society. "Audubon, and other groups, will be watching very closely."

Katherine Weiler of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency walked beside the sailors Thursday, taking notes.

"The birds target small pieces of brightly colored plastic," she said. "They think it's something to eat."

Also monitoring the cleanup was Malloy Watson, community engagement coordinator with San Diego Coastkeeper, which leads cleanup drives on public beaches.

This beach may be military, she noted, but the debris "is still public."