Run-stop-peck. This is one of key behaviors that sets the Western Snowy Plovers apart from other shorebirds of similar size. They are a bit rounder than sandpipers and sanderlings and have thin and dark bills with dark or grayish legs. Another defining characteristic is their incomplete breast band and dark ear patch. However, if you are still not sure if the small shorebird you are looking at is a Snowy Plover, just go by the level of cuteness. As another EFTA intern put it, “If the bird is cute, it has to be a Snowy Plover.”
Historically, the Western Snowy Plover breeding range included the entire U.S Pacific Coast from Washington down to California and into Baja California, Mexico. In a perfect world, the plovers would be nesting along most of the sandy beaches of the Oregon coast. Unfortunately, their nesting sites have been reduced down to less than 10. They are currently listed as a federal threatened species in the US Pacific Coast and Mexico. Among the key factors impacting the Snowy Plover population are habitat loss due to human development; and the invasive European beach grass that took over the natural sandy beaches and dunes of the Oregon coast. Other factors include native and nonnative predators that have gained an advantage over the years by utilizing the beach grass as cover to stalk their prey. Additionally, an increase in human activity is known to attract denser groups of crows and ravens (corvids) because of the potential food source that people often leave behind. This can later lead to corvids praying on the plover eggs. Human activity such as walking along the beach with a dog (leashed or not), flying kites, riding in the car along the coast, and other forms of recreation also affect these birds specifically during the breeding season. With the increase in disturbance from predators and human activity, Snowy Plovers become overstressed and lack the energy to continue caring for their eggs and eventually abandon them.
However, things are beginning to change in Oregon. This weekend at a Snowy Plover detection survey training in Nehalem State Park I learned about the incredible endurance of these birds and how human collaboration is helping to save their population. Since 1993 when the Snowy Plover was listed as an endangered and threatened species, Oregon has had success in the number of nests found and fledglings banded. This is where concerned citizens come in. Many citizen science programs are the reason why plovers are not extinct. Nest monitoring and plover surveys have been accomplished by people who volunteer their time to search for plover nests, monitor nests, and do community outreach to inform the public of the importance of this indicator species. When wildlife biologists confirm that plovers are nesting in a beach area, they immediately take action to restrict human activity and access to these sites from March 15 to September 15. This gives the plovers a chance to nest without human disturbance while nest monitoring and predator management are implemented. Over the next couple of weeks, there may be an opportunity for me to conduct some of these detection surveys and contribute to the recovery of these “cute” shorebirds. A great example of how the conservation and protection of wildlife can be accomplished is the Oregon wildlife biologists and communities working together to save the Western Snowy Plover.