Grays Harbor Birds — Snowy Plover

Size: 6.25 inches

General Description: The Snowy Plover is the smallest of the plovers, with a fat little body on long legs which it uses to run farther and faster than other plovers. It has a big head for such a small body, with a steep, white forehead and a small, thin bill. The general color of the bird is pale to blend in with the sand where it is found, but it has what I like to call “epaulets” on either side of the upper breast, darker in breeding males than females and juveniles; ear patches and crown are black in breeding males and brown in breeding females.

Habitat: Coastal populations of Snowy Plovers are found on sandy beaches with very little vegetation. They may forage in the wrack line (line formed at high tide) among piles of kelp and eel grass, but they return to the upper beach and softer, deeper sand, to hunker down in tire tracks or depressions formed behind obstructions to the wind. They over-winter on coastal beaches and tidal flats.

Behavior: Snowy Plovers are often found roosting together in small groups and breed in loose colonies, but defend their nesting territories. They also move about the beach in a loose group, but forage alone in individual runs out from the group. Adult Snowy Plovers usually run when approached by humans or predators but will fly when startled. They are more easily viewed from a car; just be aware they like to shelter in previously made tire tracks.

Diet: The Snowy’s diet consists of small crustaceans, mollusks, marine worms and insects. A pile of recently deposited eel grass or kelp is a real treat, and even dryer kelp with lots of flies buzzing around can be mighty attractive to them. Stake out such a pile and watch; they may be seen running in, pausing, then hurriedly pecking at the ground and around the perimeter of the pile of drying greenery.

Nesting: Males may construct up to three shallow scrapes on bare ground, sometimes near a clump of beach grass or a piece of driftwood. The nest area is then lined with shells and other bits of debris. The male bows near the female with his white rump feathers showing and bill pointing at the chosen nest. If she chooses that nest, he then defends that territory. Females typically lay three eggs and both parents incubate for 27 to 28 days, males at night and females during the day.The young leave the nest within hours of hatching and are able to feed themselves under the watchful eye of the father who raises them. The female usually leaves within six days to find another mate and raise a second brood. First flight of the young is approximately 30 days after hatching.

Migration Status: Many coastal breeders are permanent residents, though the Washington population consists of both resident and migratory birds. Spring migrants arrive in early March from California or as far south as Baja Mexico, and south-bound birds leave from late June to late October.

Conservation Status: The sub-species found in Washington, the Western Snowy Plover, has been listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service since 1993, and Washington state lists it as endangered, mostly due to human disturbance and habitat modification. The spread of European beachgrass has reduced nesting habitat on the coast, but recent protection of nesting areas and removal of large areas of dune grass have stopped or even reversed their decline in Washington. Because their nests are out in the open, they are very vulnerable to dogs, crows, peregrines, and beach walkers. Signage has been used to keep the public informed of nesting locations; please be a good steward of their future and avoid walking or driving in their territory, and keep your dog(s) away from their nests. We all benefit from their recovery in pride, and tourist dollars spent in the hosting communities.

When and Where to Find in Grays Harbor area: The Western Snowy Plover used to nest on Damon Point and on the western edge of the Oyhut Game Range in Ocean Shores, but haven’t been seen in either area in several years. Their nesting area also included the mouth of Conner Creek, but that too seems to have been abandoned as a nesting site. The only areas where they can still be found are at the Grayland Beach State Park and Midway Beach along the Grays Harbor and Pacific County line, and in Pacific County on the north end of the Long Beach peninsula at Leadbetter Point. We are hoping they will return to their traditional breeding grounds around the harbor as their population (hopefully) increases.

Dianna Moore | Grays Harbor Audubon