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Sarasota Waters

IT’S TIME!
By Allan Worms, Ph.D.  Wildlife Biologist (Retire)

The Snowy Plover Nesting Season and Other Special Beach Life of Siesta Key

Nesting Snowy Plover. Photo by Clarie Herzog
Nesting Snowy Plover. Photo by Clarie Herzog

In the minds of many birders, regular beach walkers and a band of Siesta Key and Audubon volunteers the Snowy Plover nesting season is a special time of year.

For anyone who has seen this very small bird running out from under the feet of beach walkers, who has seen their colorful mating antics and their most unique thumb sized, but long legged chicks, survival of the Snowy Plover species is a powerful concern.

Yes, the breeding season of this beautiful little bird, now numbering only about 200 individuals in Florida, began with the first nest on Monday, April 14th.

Most of us expect to see birds nest in trees or at least upright shrubbery. But actually many birds are ground nesters — quail, killdeers, grouse, and so on. And the Snowy Plover is a beach nesting bird — directly on the sand of Siesta Key and similar coastal beaches.

Two or three eggs are laid in a shallow concave in the sand scratched out by the parental pair. The small Snowy Plover hen produces one egg at a time and begins incubation only when the last of two or three eggs is laid. And then she sits silently, camouflaged by her color and the vegetation of the dunes.

Sometimes she is relieved by the male so she can feed. But still, it is a long vigil.

And if she is approached accidentally by a beach walker she may flush from the nest, but usually returns to her task. Upright two-legged animals are not natural predators. If, however, she is flushed by a four-legged predator such as a raccoon, fox, or a dog that’s almost always the end of the nest!

Perhaps there will be time for the hen to mate and nest again. But there is a lesson here. Encourage people to obey the law and love their dog but walk it somewhere other than on the beach.

So, if the hen successfully incubates the nest, the eggs hatch and from one to three very small precocial chicks HATCH! Precocial chicks have developed in the egg, are mobile almost immediately and feeding on their own in only a few hours. Altricial chicks such as many hawks and owls, hatch virtually naked and require feeding and attention while they develop further.

And these little long-legged, thumb sized snowy plover chicks are up and about chasing insects on the sand, flies, sand hoppers and even small critters in the surf’s swash zone. Will they survive? We have seen chicks killed by gulls, snakes, and especially crows, the most successful predator on the beach. It’s a wild, sometimes cruel world for a chick.

Some Beach Birds with Unique Characteristics “What a wondrous bird is the pelican . . . ” Perhaps you’ve heard this old rhyme. But do you know the rest of the story?

Brown Pelican eating a fish. Photo by Claire Herzog
Brown Pelican eating a fish. Photo by Claire Herzog

Brown Pelicans are seen and recognized by almost everyone by their long bills, broad wing span and obvious “gular” pouches. This spectacular bird, glides above the surf and “plunge” dives into the water to catch fish. Then, rising to the surface, it allows the sea water to escape through slits in the gular pouch that now contains only the fish catch.

But watch the dive! The pelican plunges into the sea, often turning at the last instant to shock its’ fish prey and more easily trap the fish in its pouch. It is limited, of course, to fish that will fit the pouch — and then it must work the fish into position for swallowing.

Interestingly, researchers of the Brown Pelican have theorized plunge diving and eye damage ultimately limit successful feeding and the life of this otherwise long lived bird.

The “dance” of the Reddish Egret . . . is another unique sight to see. Siesta Key beach walkers often see this tall, long legged bird with a sharp bill flailing its wings and jumping about in the shallow surf. And then it swoops and snags a small fish. But why does it dance?

Reddish Egrets use their large spread wings to reduce glare as well as to frighten fish toward shallow shoreline waters where they can catch their prey more easily. Their vigorous jumping up and down and sometimes chasing after their prey have been likened to dancing by surf fishermen and beach walkers. One Siesta Key beach walker even nick-named a regular “dancing” reddish egret “Fred” after Mr. Astaire, one supposes.