Snowy Plovers: The Gift
by Rosemary Flamion (Morro Coast Audubon Society)
In Venezuela, the common name for our Snowy Plover is Frailecito or "Little Friar," as if these quiet birds wearing somber colors were sequestered in a monastery made of sand. Dark glittering eyes beneath a cowl of sandy brown have earned them this name.
These quiet, soft birds don't shout out for attention. These subtle shaded, almost ghostly birds sit and watch. They watch the tides and the foaming waves as they rush to shore. They feel the wind and its direction and turn accordingly. They watch for predatory black crows, who bother them immensely. They watch each other for companionship and fine chases. And they watch human activity.
They watch the people walk past. They watch dogs on leash and off leash as it doesn't make a bit of difference to them. Either way, dogs are predators. They watch horses walking past making little earthquakes but also making sand dimples in which to hide later.
When the wet sandy shore is cleared of human visitors, small watching groups of Snowy Plovers will fly down to rocky berms near the water. One courageous male will run forward to the wet sand. A few minutes later another will follow until half the group is running or walking down the beach feeding on tiny crustaceans in the surf line or near the mounds of kelp.
Stand and observe the Snowy Plovers feeding. Sometimes they walk near a decaying pile of kelp and merely pick off flies. Other times, they lean forward and charge with open beak capturing as many flies as they can. They don't probe the sand for crustaceans but pick them off the surface. Plover feeding is called "run-pause-snatch" and it usually describes their routine.
Most humans walk past the symbolic fencing wondering where all the reported birds are to be found. Little do they know that the Snowy Plovers are just a few feet away by the driftwood, sitting still like a speckled rock, hiding in plain sight.
If the beach walker gets too close, these plovers will run fast to get back to their dry sandy area. If they feel thwarted or cornered, they might also take flight singly or in a tight group. Then they return to the area where they feel safe.
Other humans come from all over the United States and the world to view our Snowy Plovers in action year round. Birders know what hides in plain sight. Declining populations in most parts of the world have made them rare. A small patch of sand which contains upwards of 100 birds is very rare indeed.
Linnaeus named this small bird (Charadrius alexandrinus) in 1758 (Syst. Nat. 10(1):150) for its presence in Alexandria, Egypt. It has scattered distribution across the northern hemisphere in Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America. It frequents sandy beaches, coastal dunes, tidal mudflats, and salt ponds. Its worldwide population and nesting beaches have been diminishing as human activities are increasing and encroaching on its lifestyle.
The ancient common name "plover" (rhymes with "cover") actually comes from 14th Century Old French "plovier" or rain bird. (Latin: pluvia = rain). Perhaps plovers were seen on French sandy beaches during spring rains. The name carried to the British Isles where once this Kentish (Snowy) Plover nested on southern English beaches. Hundreds of pairs bred in Kent and Sussex 150 years ago, but regular breeding ceased about 1931. The regular nesting on the Channel Islands ceased in 1975. The last record of a nesting pair in Lincolnshire was in 1979. It no longer nests on beaches in England as human activities have encroached on its breeding habits. Now it is a passage migrant and a very rare visitor on Southern and Eastern coasts. Birders all over England flock to an area where a Kentish Plover has been reported. They are that precious and rare like a pale jewel on the beach.
The health of our sandy beaches and avian environment might be measured by the number of Snowy Plovers residing, nesting, rearing, and fledging young. Western Snowy Plovers will share the shore as long as they have small, protected nesting islands.
When our winter migrants have flown elsewhere to breed, the Snowy Plover is one of the species who remains on our summer beaches. They just don't feed and react to their environment, but they reproduce on our beaches. It is a pleasure to watch them from a distance. They are a gift.
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