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THE SNOWY PLOVER: SIESTA KEY’S RARE BEACH GEM

snowy plover2
Photo Courtesy: Claire Herzog

By Allan Worms, Ph.D.
Wildlife Biologist (retired)
If you enjoy Siesta Key Beach for walking, sunbathing or other recreation you should know you share it with a great number of shore birds that feed and even nest directly on the beach. This spring we will bring you a series of articles featuring the shorebirds and other wildlife of Siesta Key’s beaches. Look forward to learning about interesting and often very colorful birds that both reside on this island and visit during their migrations.

We hope to make it easier for you to see, recognize and understand the ways of herons and egrets, sanderlings and sandpipers, turnstones and gulls, osprey and hawks and much more.

One small beautiful resident is the often unseen Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus).

Why unseen? Because this little bird benefits from great protective coloration. It blends into the white sands and shadows of Siesta Key. It may often be seen searching for insects and other organisms along the beach, but when snowy plovers stop to rest they almost seem to disappear into a footprint or behind a small mound of sand.

You can find them, however, if you walk along the water’s edge — mostly between Beach Access 11 and 5 and watch for them foraging for food in the sand. Or often, you will see them when they move out of your path.

Small, yes! This little bird is only 6 to 7 inches long with a wingspan of about 13 inches.  And unless a hen is gravid (carrying eggs) the snowy plover only weighs about 4 ounces.

Rare, yes! While the Snowy Plover has been a resident of Siesta Key and other nearby islands for centuries, they now number only about 200 birds throughout all of Florida.

As Jeanne Dubi of the Sarasota Audubon Society says, “Siesta Key beach is home to almost 10% of the entire state’s breeding population of Snowy Plovers”

And just a few days ago, during an annual shorebird survey we found 18 snowy plovers on Siesta Key beach during a short walk from Access 11 to Access 5. If you are visiting on Siesta Key or walk regularly on the north end of the beach you will have a good opportunity to see this rare, but pretty little bird as it feeds on the beach sands between the shore and the first low dunes.

Snowy Plovers are adapted to lay their eggs in a shallow bowl-shaped scrape directly on the sand. It may be lined with bits of shell, pebbles, and grass, but it’s protective colors and some thin grass offers little visual protection.

This unfortunate nesting niche means the plover hen and her helpful mate may run a forbidding gauntlet of disruptions by people, dogs, and particularly human development. If the hen is flushed by people she may return to the nest. But if she is flushed by crows or other “natural” predators that’s probably the end of the nest. Unfortunately, one of the most numerous predators are four-legged animals often found to flush and chase birds — dogs. If you see anyone with a dog on Siesta Key Beach please remind them that it is a “no dogs beach”.

Gulls, herons, ghost crabs, snakes and dogs all seek snowy plover nests and eggs and, especially the young chicks! A gull flying over an adult snowy plover probably won’t catch it. But if they see a chick a gull will chase and often catch a chick.
But among the most efficient predators on the beach are crows! You will often see crows flying over the dunes or resting briefly on the sand. They are always alert for snowy plover nests and, especially, for young chicks.

And crows are smart. Frequently they work together to protect their nests and, also, to locate and chase food. On one occasion I saw two crows perched on the masts of catamarans parked on the beach. One crow located a snowy plover nest and flew toward it. The adult snowy plovers chased the crow. Then, while this was going on, the other crow flew down and picked up one egg in its mouth, flew back to the catamaran and swallowed the egg. Then it immediately flew down and picked up a second egg.

Nesting season for snowy plovers will begin sometime in March or April — depending on the weather — and lasts into the summer. And how do we know? When you see two (2) snowy plovers foraging and moving actively together (boy meets girl) you’ll know. And, if you stay back, but are very observant (and a little lucky) you may see the moment! (They pretty much do it in plain sight.)

One of the other delights to be seen on the beach may be some of the many migrating birds that pass from south to north on their long way back to northern nesting areas.

Siesta Key offers an opportunity for migrants to stop, feed and rest. Examples of migrants you might see include Herring Gulls, dramatically colored Black-bellied Plovers, and Ruddy Turnstones. Other shorebirds and Florida species you may see on Siesta Key Beach and that we will describe in later editions include osprey, willets, roseate spoonbills, and even reddish egrets you will recognize by their size color and dance. Also, Siesta Key is a stop-over for red knots that are an awesome migrant flying more than 8,000 miles annually from their breeding grounds of the Arctic Circle to the southern most shores of South America.

Many of these migrants are seriously challenged to survive during their long distance flights and find limited opportunities to feed and re-build their strength. Disturbing them on the beach robs them of an important resting and feeding opportunity vital to replenishing flight strength. So please watch and enjoy from a sensible distance.

Still, one of the most seriously challenged of our birds is the beautiful little Snowy Plover. Nationally, Snowy Plovers are “critically endangered” and, locally, are listed as threatened by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. Thus, if you see a Florida Fish and Wildlife sign near a nesting area asking you to keep out, please do so. Watch from a respectful distance because even a slight intrusion can cause beach nesting birds to abandon their nests.

And as Ms. Dubi of Sarasota Audubon points out “our nesting birds allow us to use their beaches; it’s our responsibility to help them thrive”