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What’s That Running Across the Beach?

IT’S A SNOWY PLOVER CHICK!
By Allan Worms, Ph.D., Wildlife Biologist (retired)

When you see a newly hatched Snowy Plover chick only a few hours old RUNNING on the beach

Photo by Claire Herzog
Photo by Claire Herzog

to catch food you will be amazed!

Many birds, such as song birds, are altricial and upon hatching they come out of their shell wet, blind, featherless and virtually helpless. The Snowy Plover, however, is one of those precocial birds that benefits from a longer incubation and whose eyes are open, has downy feathers and is capable of independent movement in only a few hours. And sure enough they can and do learn quickly to chase and catch their first meals.

Now is the time to watch for these very rare Snowy Plover chicks on Siesta Key Beach. Study the photos accompanying this article. You will see examples of adult Snowy Plovers and an adult hen with a chick. Both the adults and the chick are basically white — about the color of Siesta Key sand. But they also bear small light brown to black spots — all of which contribute to their natural protective coloration.

Look for them along and on top of small dune mounds. Often, however, they aren’t seen until they move!

Notice the chick. Until they grow for many days they are often likened to a cotton ball with toothpick sized legs. But how they run!

And fortunately so because the combination of good protective coloration, running to cover, and

Photo by Claire Herzog
Photo by Claire Herzog

the guidance of the adults are vital for their survival.  Upon hatching, the Snowy Plover chick must feed often to grow. At the same time – as with any baby – young chicks get tired. They can easily become over-heated or even chilled in the early mornings and at night. Snowy Plover hens will teach the chick to come back under the folds of its body and wings for frequent brooding. This technique is used to warm or cool the chick and even to hide the chick if a predator such as a gull or crow flies over.  From hatching to fledging — the initiation of real flight that occurs only after several weeks of growth — the chick is subject to predation. And predators are many.

Probably the most effective predator on the beach are crows. They have good vision, are smart — even to the point of cooperating to catch their prey. And they can drop from overhead in an instant to catch a chick.

But there many other predators of small baby birds — gulls, ghost crabs, herons such as the Yellow Crowned Night Heron and more. The night heron can often be seen slowly stalking the dunes as it searches for crabs, chicks and other prey.

Unfortunately, domestic dogs are also a serious predator of chicks and of the nesting hen prior to hatching of chicks. If a free-running dog or even a dog on a leash passes too close to the hen on the nest, she will flush, likely never to return to incubate her eggs. Hens on a nest may even be flushed by a person, but to be flushed by a four legged animal or similar predator almost always means the end of the nest. Remember and help others to remember Siesta Key beach is a “no dog beach” and there are a number of OTHER places to walk a dog.

Want some help finding a Snowy Plover adult or chick? You will often see a volunteer wearing a

Photo by Claire Herzog
Photo by Claire Herzog

tag saying “Beach Steward”. These people are knowledgeable of Snowy Plovers and much more and are happy to help you.  Also, there are several “buffered” sites on the beach that have been established where a hen may be nesting or even where a live chick is running about. Please remember the buffers are established for the birds’ protection. NO TRESPASSING! But bring your binoculars and you can enjoy seeing the birds safely from outside the buffers.

WANT TO BE A SNOWY PLOVER VOLUNTEER? IT’S EASY AND YOU CAN PRETTY MUCH PICK YOUR OWN TIME.  JUST CALL BOB LUCKNER @349 3779