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Hiding in plain sight: Snowy Plover nesting season is upon Sanibel and Captiva

By Staff | Jul 15, 2015

Odds are usually heavily stacked against an infant in the wild, but try doing it by being the size of a human’s thumb and weighing approximately three pennies worth.

That’s the challenge Snowy Plover chicks have to endure, after hatching on some beach and learning to survive by avoiding getting eaten, stepped on or starving to death.

Now is the time to be aware of where exactly you are when visiting one of Sanibel’s or Captiva’s beaches, because there are Snowy Plover chicks hiding in the sands or wrack lines on the coast.

“They are usually hiding in plain sight,” said Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation volunteer Claudia Burns during a Snowy Plover education session held at the CROW visiting center July 6. “The nests are very hard to see and that’s why SCCF volunteers go out and stake out the nests, to make people aware of them.”

Snowy Plovers are considered a threatened specie in Florida, mostly due to their disappearing habitat from development of coastline. Their nesting season is between the months of March and August.

SCCF records Snowy Plover nesting numbers and the program is run by biologist and SCCF shoreline monitoring coordinator Joel Caouette.

As of June 26, nine Snowy Plover nests have hatched 26 chicks. Two nests were active, while one had one chick and one has fledged a chick and still has one other.

Six nests have fledged seven chicks, with two nests being depredated and one being washed out. One nest is gone, due to reasons unknown.

The mating season begins around mid-February, where a male and female Snowy Plover start pairing off.

“They are like teenagers at a mall, they hangout for awhile, then they start separating into their own pairs,” Caouette said. “The male and females are hard to tell apart by the summer because the feathers are washed out by the sun, but the male’s markings on its head are darker and more prominent than the females’.”

After the Snowy Plovers pair up, the male starts to make scrapings in the sands of the beaches, which mostly are always near wrack lines (debris washed onto the beach by storms).

The male will use his breast and start pushing sand away to form a scrape, which resembles a perfectly made circle.

“The male will make up to one to 18 scrapes, or until the female likes one,” Caouette said. “This happens usually from March 1 to July 31, on Sanibel. The earliest we’ve seen scrapes was Feb. 11, while the latest was July 20.”

Once the female picks out the scrape she likes, the mating begins. The female will end up mating with up to two males throughout the season, sometimes more and they don’t mate for life. Females can start breeding at 11 months of age, with lifespans averaging two to three years.

Lifespans on Sanibel are longer due to the protected environment and can average from five to seven years. The oldest Snowy Plover to have lived on Sanibel was a seven-year-old male.

After mating, eggs can be laid three days after. The eggs are darker and speckled, which make them blend in well with the sand. That’s when SCCF volunteers will stake out a Snowy Plover nest.

Normally, three eggs are laid and after the last one is laid, the incubation begins. Beforehand, the female and male shade the first two eggs, but don’t incubate them, because the eggs need to hatch within hours of each other.

“They hatch one to six hours apart from each other,” Caouette said. “The eggs are usually one-third the weight of what the female weighs.”

Both the male and female sit on the eggs, with the female doing it during the day and male at night.

The eggs start to hatch 26-28 days after being laid.

“After the 25th or 26th day, you can hear the chicks peeping, communicating with each other,” Caouette said. “You can tell they are peeping because the parents are looking down into the nest when incubating.”

When the chicks do hatch, the parents will quickly dispose of the used eggshells, flying away from the nest and dumping them off into the ocean.

“The parents want to get rid of the smell of a newborn away from the nest which could attract predators,” Caouette added. “The chicks don’t take long before they are already running around and looking to forage for food.”

“It’s a big treat watching the chicks run around the beach,” Burns added.

Snowy Plover chicks are precocial, or display independence activity right after birth. After one to two days, they leave the nest and don’t return and are up and running one to two hours after being hatched.

“The parents have to do their best to coral the chicks to the best foraging areas on the beach,” Caouette said. “The chicks can run very fast, since they are not flight capable until 28 days after they hatch.”

The chicks weigh only six grams, or about the weight of three pennies, while adults are 30-50 grams, or about the weight of 12 pennies. With the chicks not having much time to gain that much weight in a short amount of time, it’s vital people don’t chase them or allow their pet dogs run after them.

“They can use up a lot of energy running away and it takes their foraging time ways and that makes it that much harder for them to gain weight,” Caouette said.

After about 1.5 weeks, the female leaves and finds another male to mate with to produce another nest of chicks, while leaving its current partner behind to raise the chicks to fledging.

In 2012, Sanibel had a 36.8 percent fledge rate (19 chicks), while 2013 had a high 65.5 percent rate (29 chicks). In 2014, that dropped to 42.8 percent (21 chicks).

So far this year midway through the season, 38-percent of the chicks have made it to fledging.

“That’s a pretty good percentage, it’s normal,” Caouette said.

The biggest threats to the chicks are predators, with the top ones including ghost crabs and raccoons. The second biggest threat are crows and the third hawks and snakes.

People are also an obstacle in the development of Snowy Plover chicks, but there are several helpful tips they can do to not become a threat to a chick.

“You should avoid walking in the wrack lines, because it could disturb the adults and they’ll fly away from the nest,” Caouette said. “Avoid flying kites on the beach during this time of the year or by a staked out nest. The shadow of a kite resembles that of a hawk or crow and it could flush off the adult Snowy Plovers.”

Keep your dogs on a leash and don’t allow them to chase flocks of shorebirds. Stay away from beach areas staked off and provide a healthy buffer zone to protect birds from unnecessarily leaving the nest and exposing the eggs to predators and the elements.

Fill all holes up on the beach, because chicks are flightless and can become entrapped in them.

It’s a tough world out there, but for Snowy Plover chicks, it’s a little more rougher than normal. SCCF encourages people to respect the beaches and the staked out nests of the Snowy Plover.

To read more up on the SCCF’s Snowy Plover Project, visit www.sccf.org/content/80/Snowy-Plover-Project.aspx .