Sanibel Island is home to many species of nesting birds. Some are more noticeable than others, such as the many ospreys calling loudly from their highly visible nest platforms. Others, like the snowy plover, can be easy to miss. These tiny shorebirds are most commonly found resting or feeding among the wrack at the high tide line; but are often overlooked because of their quiet nature and perfectly camouflaged plumage.
In February and March, the snowy plovers pair off and begin establishing territories along the beach. The males will dig practice nest scrapes in several locations. When the pair decides they have found the ideal location, they will begin mating and eventually lay eggs. A typical snowy plover nest is a shallow depression in the sand sometimes lined with small pebbles or shell fragments. They will lay one egg every other day until they reach a full clutch of 3 eggs, which they then incubate for 4 weeks.
During nesting season, it is not uncommon to see areas of the beach roped off with string and posts bearing informational signs. These areas are essential for snowy plover nesting success and chick survival. Nests are very difficult to see, and it would be easy for someone to mistakenly step on one. Fencing off a large area around the nest minimizes disturbance to the nest.
When people, dogs, and vehicles are too close to the nest, the adult will be off the nest, leaving the eggs vulnerable to the elements or predators. Adults will call loudly, and feign a broken wing in hopes of distracting potential predators from their young. If you see an adult exhibiting these behaviors, it means you are too close to the nest or chicks. The proper course of action is to immediately stop moving and carefully observe the ground around you. Once you are sure you are not standing near a nest or chicks, slowly walk away from the birds and continue to watch your feet as you go.
Snowy plover chicks are precocial, which means they will be up and running and finding their own food within a few hours of hatching. They can feed themselves, but still rely on their parents for protection from the elements and predators until they are fledged. The chick’s instinct when approached by people or predators is to crouch down and stay very still. Their sandy colored speckled plumage allows them to blend in perfectly with their surroundings.
Please help protect nesting snowy plovers by respecting the signs and staying outside the roped off areas. It is also important to remember to keep all dogs on leashes, and never allow children or dogs to chase after birds on the beach. If you have questions about snowy plovers or other shorebirds on Sanibel Island, please contact the shorebird coordinator Audrey Albrecht via email at firstname.lastname@example.org