A Day at the Beach – With a Snowy Plover Biologist

Imagine arriving at Point Reyes National Seashore, with the beach as your destination. You get to the parking lot, grab your “beach essentials” and head out towards the water, only to find parts of the beach fenced off. The signs say something about some bird needing its own space. Yes, you are asked to share the beach with a bird that is unfamiliar to most people; the Western Snowy Plover.

The Snowy Plover is a shorebird that is about the size of a sparrow. It lives on the Pacific coast from Oregon to California. In 1993, it was listed as a threatened species due to declining numbers and loss of habitat.

I had the amazing opportunity to spend my Friday-off with Matt Lau, the park’s Snowy Plover Ecologist. He and the plover research team have been monitoring a nest near Kehoe beach and predicted that the eggs would be newly hatched Friday morning. And, they were right.

The nesting area was easy to find since the park staff had erected a wire cage around it. The cage allows the adults and chicks to pass through the wire but keeps out larger predators. But, even when I was kneeling right by the cage, Matt had to point out the nest and one chick that had already moved away from the nest. Yes, they are that challenging to see! Hence the reason for the beach closures. People could easily step on the nest or chicks and never know it.

Matt Lau kneeling by wire cage, installed to protect the Western Snowy Plover nest. The plovers can easily pass through the wire barrier that keeps predators (including humans) out.
Sony a7R III + 24-105mm lens @24 mm, ISO 400, f/8, 1/1250s. ©Stanley Buman. All Rights Reserved.

The nest itself was little more than a shallow depression in the sand. Sometimes small fragments of beach debris are scattered around it for camouflage purposes. The nest still contained one hatchling and one egg. Matt carefully examined the egg for hairline cracks and listened for peeping noises. None were found, indicating that the egg will not hatch.

Two banded Western Snowy Plover chicks and one egg occupy the nest. The nest itself is barely more than a shallow scrape in the sand with a little debris scattered around it. Sony a7R III + 24-105mm lens @105 mm, ISO 400, f/8, 1/1250s. ©Stanley Buman. All Rights Reserved.

While Matt opened the cage enclosure and caught the two chicks, I took pictures and kept an eye out for Ravens; a common predator of eggs and chicks. He proceeded to place identifying bands on the chicks for research purposes. Meanwhile, the attentive adults tried to catch our attention by feigning injury to lure us away.

The male Western Snowy Plover was feigning injury, trying to attract our attention and lead us away from the nest. Note how the color of the feathers matches the color of the sand. Sony a9 + 100-400mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter @560 mm, ISO 400, f/8, 1/600s. ©Stanley Buman. All Rights Reserved.

Matt Lau holding a banded Western Snowy Plover chick. Note the position of the nest area, just above the debris line on the shore. Typically, the nests are not amongst grasses, but this one is. Sony a7R III + 24-105mm lens @24mm, ISO 400, f/8, 1/1250s. ©Stanley Buman. All Rights Reserved.

It is important to control human activity around nesting areas. Wheeled vehicles, including bikes can crush the nest contents. Also, pets can scare or kill the plovers. Something as simple as flying a kite can scare the adult as they may confuse it with a winged predator. So please, follow the directions posted on the signs and share the beach with our tiny shorebirds. The best that we can hope for is that the population grows enough to take it off the threatened species list.