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.
True to its nickname sea swallow, this is the smallest tern in the Western Hemisphere. Weighing half that of a robin, this tiny tern feeds on small fish, crustaceans, and sand eels. Its cap is similar to other terns, but its diminutive size and black-tipped yellow bill are the best methods of identifying this bird.
Like several other summer species, the least tern has made Florida its northern nesting site, although several small populations nest as far north as Massachusetts. Once hunted for its plumes, the least tern is still considered threatened in much of its range, and its population is being closely monitored. There is also a West Coast population that summers in California and winters deep into Mexico.
The least tern suffers from habitat and nesting-site loss. It prefers to nest on beaches where it is often in conflict with humans and their pets. If agitated by an unwanted intruder, the least tern has a nasty habit of hovering over the potential predator and defecating, so be forewarned. The least tern is monogamous but always nests in colonies with other terns.
This is an excerpt from Living Sanibel – A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.