Living Sanibel: Snowy Plover
The snowy plover is a very small, delicate-looking shorebird that is suffering from extensive coastal over-development. Disturbances such as unleashed dogs, children at play, and in some areas, automobiles being driven on the beaches have all contributed to the rapid decline of this once familiar species. Arguably Florida’s most threatened bird, some estimates put its total number between 220 and 400 nesting pairs.
The snowy plover is often mistaken for the piping plover but has darker, grayish legs and an all-black beak as opposed to the yellow-orange legs and orange and black bill of the piping plover. Another tell is that the piping plover has more of a point to its bill than does the snowy. The snowy plover is quite a bit smaller than the killdeer or Wilson’s plover.
It feeds on small crustaceans and soft invertebrates such as sand flies. Its nest consists of some shallow scrapes of assorted shells upon which two to three pale, dotted eggs are laid, sometimes up to two broods annually. Young plovers leave the nest within three hours of hatching.
The plover’s only defense is camouflage, flattening itself against the ground when a predator or a person approaches. Predation to the nests comes from dogs, gulls, rodents, snakes, and ghost crabs. Its primary threat is continued coastal development and loss of suitable beach dune habitat. On many coastal beaches plover nesting areas are marked off by stakes and yellow police tape. Under no circumstances should dogs, children, or adults be allowed into these roped-off areas, as the tiny eggs of the snowy plover are all but impossible to spot and are easily stepped on and crushed.