Start of Snowy Plover Season Kicks Off with a New Banding Project

Snowy plovers are small beach-nesting shorebirds that we share our beautiful beach with here on Sanibel. February 15th marks the official start to snowy plover nesting season in the state of Florida. Over the next few weeks, adult plovers will form mating pairs and begin to establish territories across Sanibel. SCCF recently teamed up with staff from the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and a few volunteers to rope off a known nesting area adjacent to the Perry Tract on the east end of Sanibel. This small stretch of beach is located just to the east of Gulfside City Park.  For the last several months, a group of plovers ranging from 6- 12 individuals have been utilizing this area for roosting and foraging.

This year SCCF will continue its long tradition of monitoring the nesting of snowy plovers, along with 2 other beach-nesting species: Wilson’s plovers and least terns.  The shorebird biologist and shorebird intern will regularly be on the beaches monitoring plover activity and constructing protective boundaries around nests. Additionally, there will be presentations about our nesting shorebirds given bi-weekly at the SCCF visitor center throughout nesting season. The next presentation will be Thursday, February 23rd at 2:00 pm in the SCCF auditorium.

As a means to better track the movements and nesting success of our snowy plovers, SCCF’s shorebird biologist has initiated a banding project. To identify birds as individuals, adult plovers are captured and given a federally issued metal band and unique combination of color bands on their lower legs. Currently on Sanibel there are 6 uniquely banded individuals, one of whom was banded as part of a past research project in 2009. If you happen to see a banded snowy plover on the beach, please take a photo or make note of the colors on the legs, and the location of the bird. You can report any sightings of our banded birds, or send any further inquiries about our research to the shorebird biologist at shorebirds@sccf.org .

2016 Sanibel and Captiva Shorebird Nesting Season

A 5 week old plover chick nestled under his dads wing

A 5 week old plover chick nestled under his dads wing

The 2016 shorebird nesting season has come to a close. SCCF’s shorebird biologist and shorebird intern have been monitoring nesting Snowy Plovers, Least Terns, and Wilson’s Plovers since mid-February.  No nesting attempts were made on Captiva this year; all nests were on Sanibel.

The snowy plovers on Sanibel only fledged 4 chicks in 2016.  Of the 28 nesting attempts this year, only 7 nests made it to hatching, producing a total of 17 chicks. The primary causes of nest and chick loss were due to depredation (primarily crows and gulls) and washover events (primarily Tropical Storm Colin).

Wilson’s Plovers fared much better with 4 chicks successfully fledging in 2016. Of the 3 nest attempts, 2 nests hatched a total of 5 chicks. One nest was washed over during Tropical Storm Colin.

The Least Terns did not succeed at producing any fledglings on Sanibel this year.  They formed a nesting colony west of Bowman’s beach in mid-May.  A canine predator depredated the majority of the 23 nests in late-May, leaving only 6 nests remaining. At least 2 of those nests hatched and 3 chicks were observed in the colony prior to Tropical Storm Colin. All remaining nests and chicks were lost during the storm. The terns did not return to Sanibel to nest in 2016, but likely formed a new colony elsewhere. Many fledglings were observed on the island during July and August.

Be on the Lookout for Snowy Plovers

Can you spot the snowy plover?

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.

SNPL_camo 1During 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 aalbrecht@sccf.org

SNPL_camo 3

Tips for Photographing Shorebirds

snowy chicks1_5inch300dpiDuring Nesting Season (February through August), many shorebird nests are posted, or staked off with signs and string to create symbolic fencing. This gives the birds space to nest without disturbance from people or pets. It is imperative to ensure these posted areas do not draw excessive attention and prolonged disturbance to nesting birds.

When photographing a bird on a nest:

  • Remain behind the posted area. No part of you or your camera equipment should go beyond the string or signs. If the area around the nest is not staked off, you should remain far enough away to avoid disturbing nesting birds (typically 300 feet). If the birds show any sign of agitation as a result of your presence, please quietly and slowly retreat until the birds no longer appear agitated.
  • Never get close enough to cause the bird to leave its nest. Please back off immediately if you flush a bird. Sometimes birds nest near the edge of a posted boundary, so even if you are outside the string, if the bird responds to you, you’re too close!
    Scan for predators. Make sure there are no predators nearby such as raccoons, cats, and crows that may be attracted to human presence or scent. Predators also are alert to movement, so by flushing a bird, you may inadvertently help predators notice birds that would otherwise have remained camouflaged.
  • Don’t exceed 10 minutes. Too much time near the nest may unduly stress the birds. Be considerate and do not spend more than 10 minutes near the nest. After 10 minutes, all photographers should leave the nest area and wait at least three hours before returning.
    Don’t specify the nest’s exact location when sharing or publishing photos. Advertising the birds’ nesting location may draw additional disturbance to the area.

When photographing birds that are away from their nests, or birds with chicks:

  • Stay at least 100 ft. away from the birds. Wait for the birds to approach you for closer shots.
  • Don’t “push” birds around the beach. Birds need to be able to feed and rest without disturbance. Shorebird chicks must constantly forage to gain enough weight to fledge in time, so any time taken away from foraging is detrimental to their survival.
  • Don’t litter on the beach. Any type of litter on the beach can have adverse impacts upon the birds. For example, scraps of human food may attract predators, and pieces of plastic may entrap and ultimately kill the birds.

Please feel free to call SCCF with any question regarding shorebirds: 239-472-2329.