Spring is Coming to Siesta Key Beach

| March 1, 2015

snowy ploverBy Allan Worms, Ph.D., Wildlife Biologist (retired)
Photos courtesy of Claire Herzog

No matter the cool breezes — or even if you are a visitor and know there’s snow back home — SPRING is definitely on its way to Siesta Key Beach. AND HERE’S PROOF!!
The photo is of a male Snowy Plover — one of the most rare birds in Florida — and this time of year he’s got mating on his mind!

Author shows an excellent example of a round saucer-like scratch just made by a male snowy plover courting the female. (Photo by Claire Herzog)

Author shows an excellent example of a round saucer-like scratch just made by a male snowy plover courting the female. (Photo by Claire Herzog)

Uniquely, as mating season nears, these little birds make a circular scratch in the sand — rather like a shallow saucer. First one makes a scratch — usually the male. And then the female may make a scratch and with her final scratch — up to 2 or 3 weeks later — becoming the nesting site.
Note the circular scratch in the photo below. These scratches are consistent in their similarity to a small saucer and my colleague, photographer Claire Herzog, photographed this near perfect saucer only moments after the male had made it.

Within a few days, if the male is appealing to the female (and vice versa) first one bird makes such a circular scratch and then, in either a few minutes to a day or so, the other makes a scratch. If they proceed and finally mate successfully the female will and begin to grow two to three eggs in her body.
And then one morning — if all goes well — we find a nest!
Typically, the hen lays two to three eggs and continues on the nest incubation for 3 to 3½ weeks until the eggs hatch, usually during the night. And by early in the morning the chicks are often up and running about searching for food.
Why so quickly? This is a characteristic of precocious birds. And snowy plovers are very precocial with the eggs maturing significantly prior to hatching.

A chick snowy plover with an adult.

A chick snowy plover with an adult.

Many other birds are altricial — such as ospreys or eagles — and are hatched virtually naked and blind and must be fed by the adults until they can feed themselves.
As you walk along Siesta Key beach watch for an osprey flying over the shoreline. You may see the male or the female taking a turn at catching fish to feed newly hatched chicks.
Snowy plovers are hatched with light feathering and soon begin running about and searching for food such as small insects or anything else they are big and fast enough to catch and eat.
This is a very challenging time for such small young birds. They may become prey for many larger animals including crows, gulls, an occasional snake and even four-legged hunters such as a raccoon, cat or dog. Running away is an option, but a one or two ounce chick is usually better off to hide or hold very still taking advantage of its natural protective coloration.

From hatching to flight stage snowy plovers and other beach nesting birds are confronted with many dangers. As you walk the beach watch for stake and line enclosures identified by U S Fish and Wildlife or Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation signs. Such an enclosure is a no trespassing area set up to protect nesting birds and their chicks. However, REMEMBER, BIRDS DON’T READ!! And these very small chicks may be running about or resting in the sand outside the perimeter of the signed area. Please give the nesting birds and chicks plenty of room. It’s fine to watch the chicks from a safe distance — a distance safer for them is the issue, of course.

Siesta Key Beach offers an enormous array of interesting wildlife to see and enjoy. One of the most interesting places to find seashore organisms is in the WRACK.
As you walk along the beach you will notice the sea washes up onto the lower beach and then rolls back. Each time the Gulf of Mexico sea water washes up it may carry any objects from sea weed (algae) or sea grasses to small sea creatures. The wrack is the seashore line of debris dropped from the waves as they lose energy against the beach. You might think of the wrack as being like the ring around a really big bath tub — the Gulf of Mexico.
It is unique in that it may hold an endless array of objects washing in from near and far.
The picture below is of a small collection of wrack — mostly leaves and algae — on which a sea horse lies after washing onto our shore.

Seahorses are immediately interesting because of their shape and they are actually a unique kind of

A dead seahorse lying on its side on the seashore wrack. Photo by Ms. Margaret Long of Ocean Pines, Maryland.

A dead seahorse lying on its side on the seashore wrack. Photo by Ms. Margaret Long of Ocean Pines, Maryland.

marine fish in the genus Hippocampus. Notice the horse-like head, body and curved tail that it often uses to “anchor” itself in seaweeds. As with many other kinds of small fish, the shallow waters off Siesta Key beach may be a friendly environment for this weak swimmer.
We hope you enjoy Siesta Key Beach and its truly diverse array of birds and other shoreline wildlife. Future articles in Siesta Sand will describe some of its year round residents, the many migrating birds that visit to rest and feed before resuming their long north to south flights and, of course, the astounding array of creatures that wash into the wrack.

 

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