By Allan Worms, Ph.D., Wildlife Biologist (retired)
Photos by Claire Herzog
Beautiful Siesta Key Beach, lauded for its brilliant white sand and swimmer friendly shoreline – – is
also exceptional for its outstanding bird life. One of its most beautiful birds is the very small Snowy Plover hen seen nesting.
Snowy Plovers blend perfectly into the brilliant white sand and are often not seen until they move, scurrying across the beach in a continuing effort to find food (mostly insects) or a mate. The Snowy Plover seen below is a male resting among native beach
vegetation. Note how its protective coloration — white feathers with small dark and black markings — might very well not be seen until you look carefully.
This very small, rare, beach dwelling bird faces many perils, natural predators and even your family dog or cat, particularly during nesting. The enlarged photo below shows a Snowy Plover egg that has been attacked, with its shell breached and the contents being consumed by fire ants.
Once numerous, now only a few more than 200 nesting pairs of Snowy Plovers can still be found in all of Florida. And, according to Ms. Jeanne Dubi, President of Sarasota Audubon Society, the population is still declining. Snowy Plovers mate on Siesta Key Beach and hatch small eggs and attempt to raise their thumb-sized chicks to flight stage. The chicks, upon flying, are called fledglings. But until the chicks fledge, the nesting hen, her mate and the chicks endure a frightful array of perils! Their very small size and protective coloration support an amazing ability to blend into Siesta Key’s brilliantly white beach background when they are still. When nesting, the hen patiently sits her nest, up to 3 or 4 weeks, while the eggs incubate. During this time she may be preyed upon by an array of other animals including snakes, raccoons, the occasional bobcat, feral or stray household cats, dogs and more. Frequently, a hen is flushed off her nest by people. When humans pass too near the nest, accidentally or out of curiosity, the hen may flee. Even unintended occasional flushing may occur one time too often and already, during this spring 2015 nesting season, a snowy plover hen was frightened from her nest by people who entered a protected area. Beach stewards found tracks of humans who ignored the Fish and Wildlife protective signing and passed near the nest. It is not known if she abandoned the nest for that
reason or if some other animal was the cause. One of the smartest and most successful predators of bird nests are crows. Crows, such as this one seen helping itself to a beach users untended snack, come to the beach because they are smart and they are opportunists. Beach users, unthinkingly, support this predator’s wily ways. Human food should never be left open or otherwise available to attract crows, gulls or other scavengers — both to avoid disease to you or to attract such predators to the beach. Another predator that is not typically invited by human carelessness, but which is often opportunistic is the Black-crowned
Night-Heron seen below. The Black-crowned Night-Heron and, also the Yellow-crowned Night Heron are often nocturnal, but may be seen prowling the edges of the dunes or a tidal pool searching for food. While many birds feed along the shoreline and the edges of fresh or saltwater pools for aquatic organisms, another bird’s chick may be easy prey. For an example see below. These two fuzzy little Least Tern chicks are out in the open! But they have a little advantage
over Snowy Plovers. First, they grow rapidly because they are fed
small fish by the adult Least Terns. A better diet. No bugs for least terns! Here these two chicks are being encouraged by an adult — probably to move to a better hiding place. Furthermore, if a predator arrives the adult Least Terns are very pugnacious! They will attack if anything gets too close to the chicks. Please notice the sturdy beak on the adult Least Tern. Only my Tilley hat kept me from bleeding when I mistakenly got too close one time. Still the best protection lies in our respect for good beach management and our caring. Learn about the birds, keep dogs off the beach, (we all love dogs, but they, as well as other four-legged predators, will flush a nesting bird permanently.) Don’t leave food scraps lying about to attract crows, gulls and other un-natural predators. Enjoy your beautiful beach and be good stewards. *Pearls and Perils title suggested by Mr. Dan Olson.