The search for the elusive snowy plover…
By: Sabrina Cobb
On May 6th, we set out to conduct our first snowy plover pre-nesting survey in Baldwin County. It was only 5:30 a.m. when we started walking along the beach looking for any trace of this elusive bird. Snowy plovers are masters of camouflage. They are only about five to seven inches in length with a light tan upper body and white feathers underneath. They also have a little bit of black on their forehead and neck during the breeding season. When you are looking down the beach, you could easily overlook one of these birds; they blend in so well with their surroundings. During our survey, we were paying very close attention to any tracks along the beach. Being a coastal biologist, you feel almost like a detective sometimes looking for clues along the beach. When we finally came across an active area with lots of plover tracks, we split up and followed the tracks into the dunes where we know snowy plovers like to nest.
As we were walking along, we also made sure to take note of any scrapes we came across. Scrapes are the bases for nest building. They are just a very small, bowl-shaped depression in the sand, often near vegetation or driftwood for disguise. Just as we were walking around the middle section of the dunes, we spotted one snowy plover running and stopping, as it knew we were watching it. They love to run and stop to get further down the beach without being seen. Sometimes you can see these birds foraging along the shoreline looking for marine invertebrates like worms, small clams, and other tasty creatures. As we continued our investigation in the dunes, we caught another snowy plover hiding behind a dune watching us until we passed. We always make sure to keep a good distance from any birds we see so they do not feel threatened or alarmed. Just about half a mile from where we spotted our second snowy plover, we discovered a few scrapes…which lead us to a scrape that happened to have three eggs in it! We had discovered our first snowy plover nest for this year’s breeding season!
Overcome with joy, we made sure to keep a safe distance from the nest and log as much information on the sighting as possible. When you are out in the field, you want to be as descriptive with your observations as you can. This includes taking notes on weather conditions, time of day, disturbances (predator, human, weather), and the nest’s latitude and longitude coordinates. These notes come in handy later in the year when we put together our scientific papers and reports. Because we had found an active nest, we will be monitoring this site every two to three days.
Fast forward to eight nest checks later…today, May 25th, we are happy to report the snowy plover nest has hatched! The chicks were seen with the parent bird who started to call out loudly to distract us once they had been discovered. These birds will display different behaviors to signal a predator or person is too close for comfort. One common behavior to watch for is what is referred to as the broken wing display. If you see a shorebird that looks like it is hurt, and it is low to the ground flapping around, it probably has a nest that you are too close to. It is important to make these observations so we can give the nesting shorebirds like the snowy plovers the space they need to be successful!