Snowy Plovers, sea turtles moving on sand on Siesta

| August 1, 2013

By Paul Roat

Snowy Plovers are hardy little seabirds

The little brown and white birds — they’re not even as big as your hand — are permanent residents of Siesta Key. The few of them that are left, that is, since the population numbers only 200 breeding pairs.

All the birds are found on the beaches along Southwest Florida.

According to Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) expert Hugh J. McLaughlin, who spent two seasons observing the birds, nesting occurs on the high, dry beach. Courtship is not especially exotic or erotic. Both scratch a line in the sand, then line the “nest” with pieces of broken shells.

Over about 10 days the female lays three eggs. Both male and female take turns incubating the eggs until they hatch in about 28 days.

The smart little birds snatch the shells as soon as all the babies have hatched and move them far away from the net to protect them from predators.

Snowy Plovers are brought up with some tough love. Parents don’t feed the babies. The young must forage for themselves, eating small invertebrates as they find them, then returning to the nest for protection from predators and the sun. Babies can’t regulate their body temperatures for a few weeks, so Mom and Dad provide shade in the day and warmth at night.

After about 45 days the babies take off on their own.

Female Snowy Plovers are not especially picky about mates, either. In fact, you could call them sluts. While the male sits on the eggs, the female often goes off and mates with another male and then lays more eggs in another nest.

The birds are endangered in Florida and therefore protected.

The problem is there are an awful lot of things big and small trying to get the birds. Ants can take over a nest. Racoons can eat the eggs. Unfortunately, humans can inadvertently step on a nest as eggs are pretty much the same color as sand.

Shoreside development is also a problem. There have been reports of some nest disturbances on Siesta Key this summer as construction crews edges manmade structures into avian areas.

Nesting season is usually from March through mid-summer, so the nest trampling problem is eased this year. Signage is generally in place around nesting colonies, sometimes they are roped off, but it’s still a tough time for the little birds.

Turtles by the numbers

If Snowy Plover nesting season is winding down, sea turtle nesting season is kicking into high gear on the beaches of Siesta Key and elsewhere along the shore.

Female sea turtles, mostly loggerheads, come ashore generally between May and late October. They dig a next in the sand and lay about 100 golf-ball-size eggs, cover the nest, then return to the Gulf of Mexico. In about 60 days the baby turtle hatchlings dig their way out of the sand and scamper into the water.

As of mid-July, turtle volunteers with Mote Marine Laboratory had located a total of 1,612 loggerhead sea turtle nests on the sand from Longboat Key to Casey Key. On Siesta Key there were 239 nests; Lido had 39.

Statistics are down this year from last. In 2912 at this time there were 1, 983 nests total, 270 on Siesta, 84 on Lido.

The first nest hatched in the Midnight Pass area on Siesta Key June 27.

Please wish all of our endangered sea creatures the best.

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Category: Columns

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