Western Snowy Plovers on Surfrider Beach (Part I)

Threatened species, Western Snowy Plovers live on Surfrider Beach nine months a year.

Part I – The Snowy Plovers

Few people know it, but some very rare birds live on Surfrider Beach. They spend most of their time resting in little hollows in the sand, like the ones your heel makes. Countless people saunter through their flock, never noticing them until they scurry away from underfoot.

Western Snowy Plovers are small, even for a bird, only 6 ¼ inch long, smaller than your foot. Their cryptic gray, brown, white and black plumage blends perfectly into the sandy beach. They’ll crouch for hours, motionless in sandy hollows. They’re hard to see even when searching for them.

Snowies, like all shorebirds, are carnivores; more accurately, insectivores, eating any invertebrate or tiny fish they can find. Their preferred foraging area is wrack (washed-up sea vegetation) left at the high-tide line, often abundant with kelp flies and small invertebrates. Their short stubby bills, typical of plovers, are unlike the long and thin bills of sandpipers, who often probe – even underwater – for prey in sand and mud. Snowies don’t; they pick their food from the wrack or sand.

Because they prefer to forage in wrack, the best feeding time is just after high tide when waves are retreating and wrack is fresh and full of living invertebrates. They will go onto wet sand to forage, but they avoid waves, however small.

The flocks of small gray-white-brown birds which rapidly scurry on little black legs, following and fleeing the wavelets as they wash in and out, will almost certainly be Sanderlings. They are slightly larger than Snowies, with long, pointed black bills. They run a lot. They resemble Snowies, feed with Snowies, even roost within Snowy flocks. It takes experience to reliably tell them apart in the field. Found nearly worldwide, Sanderlings are abundant.

Western Snowy Plovers are far from abundant. We’ll discuss that in a later post.

Unlike the “I’m late, I’m late” scurrying of the Sanderlings, Snowies move in a pensive, hesitant, almost thoughtful manner. They take a few steps, 3–15 perhaps, and pause, often with one leg cocked, ready for their next step, whenever they decide to take it. All of the 67 Plover species walk this way.

By the time the tide begins to rise, they’ve stopped foraging. They rest together in a small area, their roost, slightly inland of the beach berm (high ridge) between the lagoon and ocean, separated by a few inches to a few feet from one another, in small sand hollows they make, find, or improve upon. When it’s quiet with no predators or noisy humans nearby, they may sleep, although at least one lookout stays awake. When feeling frisky, they’ll chase one other around, jumping in and out of each other’s hollows.

Like you and me, Snowies need to rest and recharge their batteries. For millions of years, their lonely, windswept, barren beaches were sufficiently safe and undisturbed places to live, forage and breed. Times have changed.

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