One of the most beloved shorebird species that calls Sanibel home may also be one of the hardest winged wonders to spot. Unless, of course, you know how to spot them.
Last Thursday, Claudia Burns, a volunteer for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation's Snowy Plover Project, delivered an hour-long lecture on this small and fragile but highly popular bird.
"Photographers come from all over the country, and possibly all over the world to photograph snowy plovers," Burns informed a small crowd gathered at CROW's Healing Winds Visitor Education Center. "That's because on Sanibel, we have eight nest pairs of snowy plovers."
Recent estimates indicate that around 200 pairs of "snowies," as some bird lovers often refer to them, remain along the west coast of Florida, from the Panhandle through Cape Sable. As of July 30, there have been a total of 15 plover nests discovered on Sanibel.
According to Burns, snowy plovers are a state-listed species and generally thought to be on the decline due to habitat loss and disturbance. Therefore, her lecture focused on how to identify male and female characteristics, where to look for nests, how to protect their nests from predators and other facts about snowy plovers (Charadrius alexandrinus).
Because their nests are so well camouflaged, SCCF's volunteers stake the areas around snowy plover habitats, which are known as "scrapes." The male plover will dig a recess in the sand, providing space for his female partner to lay her clutch of eggs. Most "snowies" lay between one and three eggs per breeding season, which runs from February through August.
Once the chicks are born, male plovers remove the empty egg shell from the scrape. This is to avoid any predators who might be hunting for food along the beach.
Snowy plover newborn chicks are "about the size of your thumb," explained Burns, and weigh about the same as three pennies. They are a precocial species, meaning that — unlike most animals — they have a high degree of independent activity from birth. Chicks begin to fly at four to five weeks old.
Some of the slides shown during Burns' presentation depicted young plover chicks as long-legged, gangly non-flyers. However, they use their legs to their advantage.
"Those long legs do come in handy," she said. "They can't fly, but boy, can they run!"
Thus far in 2010, five snowy plover fledglings have been identified.
The average life span of snowy plovers is three years, but one of the birds banded by SCCF back in 2003 still survives today. Their primary predators are ghost crabs, fire ants and fish crows, but humans also pose a great problem to these tiny, delicate creatures.
According to SCCF, people are requested not to enter the staked snowy plover nest enclosures and keep dogs out as well. When snowy plovers are not moving, they are extremely well hidden. If a snowy plover is flushed from its nest, it takes very little time for the hot sun to damage the eggs.
To learn more about snowy plovers on Sanibel, a weekly program is offered on Fridays at 10 a.m. at SCCF’s Nature Center, located at 3333 Sanibel-Captiva Road. Following an informative talk about these birds, participants will carpool out to the beach to learn how to spot these elusive shorebirds in their native habitat.
For more information, visit SCCF’s website at sccf.org/content/80/Snowy-Plover-Project.aspx.
Island resident and SCCF volunteer Claudia Burns shared her knowledge about snowy plovers at CROW's Healing Winds Visitor Education Center last week.