Santa Monica's new back-to-nature beach project has drawn the attention of rare birds

On a popular beach that is groomed, sifted and devoid of vegetation, Santa Monica officials and a local environmental group are restoring three acres of sand to a more natural state.

The city and the Bay Foundation have fenced off a swath of shoreline, planted native species and taken steps to build up the beach in hopes of creating a buffer against sea level rise and bringing back coastal plants and wildlife that are almost gone from the region.

Already, dune hummocks have formed, and about 10,000 seedlings that include flowering sand verbena and beach evening primrose dot the beach enclosure.

In mid-April, a pair of rare western snowy plovers nested in the restoration area, one of four such nests found on a Los Angeles County beaches — the first in almost 70 years.

Within 10 days, winds gusting to 40 mph covered the Santa Monica nest with sand and the snowy plovers abandoned it.

But officials remain encouraged about what the discovery says about their efforts.

“Going back to what is wilder is a smarter way to go forward,” Santa Monica Mayor Ted Winterer said during Tuesday’s dedication of the Santa Monica Beach Restoration Pilot Project. “The fact that snowy plovers are nesting is progress.”

The site is on a wide stretch of sand off Pacific Coast Highway just north of the Annenberg Community Beach House. It is bordered by the ocean and a 3-foot-tall fence of wood slates and wire.

Within the restoration area, the unsifted sand is darker than other parts of the beach. On the berm near the water’s edge, workers have left kelp and wood debris to help sand collect and provide havens for kelp flies and invertebrates that shorebirds feed on.

“This has been a chance for us to give back to the city and deal with environmental impacts that we will face in the future,” said Tom Ford, executive director of the Bay Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to protect Santa Monica Bay.

The $70,000 project will be evaluated on its potential to combat sea level rise, check coastal erosion and its feasibility as a refuge for coastal vegetation and wildlife, including birds, insects and invertebrates — some of them rare.

Researchers also want to study whether recreational use of the beach can coexist with meaningful habitat restoration.

As part of the project, beach-goers are encouraged to walk through the site along a rope-lined path, but they must stay out of the restoration areas.

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